Truck-Lite: See and be seen

It’s safe to say that the rise of the ‘global economy’ has imposed a tremendous challenge on corporate communication – we must now communicate around the world, not just around the corner, and be aware of linguistic, cultural and legislative disparity if we are to build a strong international brand.  

One company that has successfully managed the transition to a global brand is lighting and mirror specialist Truck-Lite. Established in a US backyard in 1955, it has evolved into a modern, decentralised business boasting some 11 manufacturing locations worldwide – from the Americas to Europe and Asia.

“Due to that global footstep, we are able to support any customer in any location at any time,” says Tim Walker, Executive Vice President of Sales, Asia, who has recently overseen the opening of the company’s first China office in Hong-Kong, coining the term local relevance. “Local relevance is not just a phrase, it’s what we believe in. We are convinced that being close to the market will give us a competitive advantage and make the brand relevant to the people who decide on what to buy, so we keep reviewing and expanding our network all along.”

But, how does Truck-Lite maintain that big picture view everyone is talking about? And how does it preserve a quick and lean decision-making process while constantly adding to the company’s complexity?

At a first glance, it may look like the Truck-Lite team has followed the old glocalisation approach – businesss jargon for the adaptation of a product or service specifically to each locality or culture in which it is sold. But considering the shark tank that is the automotive lighting industry – and the fact that commercial vehicle lighting is all but standardised – thinking globally and acting locally may just not be enough.

The automotive lighting market is growing steadily since the Global Financial Crisis. According to global consulting firm McKinsey, the 2011 market size is estimated at EUR 14 billion, representing approximately 20 per cent of the total lighting market. This is expected to climb to EUR 18 billion by 2020, making for a much-contested business environment. But while the competition is continually increasing to secure a slice of that multi-billion pie, actual change in the market is limited, mainly due to the uncertain economic outlook around the globe. The result is an energetic, yet tense atmosphere that doesn’t allow for slowing down.

In that sense, the first Truck-Lite secret is to “exceed customer expectation through innovation”. To ensure Research and Development keep up with the times, more than five per cent of Truck-Lite’s worldwide workforce are dedicated to product development and engineering. A substantial investment, but one that is hardly avoidable in an industry where savvy businesses from the US, Europe and Asia claim market leadership.

Having filed more than 200 patents worldwide, Truck-Lite is working hard to not just follow the trend, but actively influence it; and as part of the Penske Corporation – a business covering anything from retail automotive to truck leasing – it has all the back up to keep expanding on it. To date, research and development is the buttress of the business, which is currently operating testing facilities in the US, Europe and Asia. Truck-Lite also heavily focuses on providing “world class customer service” to OEMs, fleets, distributors and end users around the world.

“Building the highest quality products requires testing the product in conditions far worse than what Mother Nature or human hands can put it through,” Walker explains. “Our laboratory and test facility has all the equipment necessary to certify products for different international standards; but it doesn't stop here. We have our very own standards, requiring the product to be extra reliable.”

As a result, the list of ‘industry firsts’ reads like an encyclopaedia of modern lighting technology – including the design of an LED-based stop, turn and tail lamp; the introduction of white LED lighting; the conception of a fully-sealed wiring harness through to LED headlamps. According to Truck-Lite, it was the company’s LED stop/turn/tail lamp that actually paved the way for the wide usage of LED lighting in the industry today. And next to the achievements in lighting technology, Truck-Lite has also built a reputation for innovative processes that are used in the manufacturing of their OEM mirror portfolio across the globe.

“LEDs are no longer a trend, and as a variable platform they are the best technological development in lighting history,” Walker says. “They use only small amounts of electricity, can deliver light in different colours, illuminate almost instantly, have a long life and are shock resistant.”

It is no surprise that the trailer manufacturing industry was one of the first to embrace the technology, bearing in mind that it traditionally suffered from lighting failures caused by water ingress, faulty earths, frayed wires, bulb failure, and cracked or broken housings – not to mention the energy saved due to greatly reduced current draw. “The potential is endless,” says Walker. “On the exterior of almost every trailer, there is a requirement for stop, tail and turn indicator lamps in the rear; side or clearance marker lamps along the sides; front and rear end outline marker lamps; reversing lamps; number plate lamps; ABS warning lamps; reflex reflectors and; depending on the target market, occasionally rear fog lamps. Interior lamps include a variety of dome and work lamps. In addition, there are a variety of auxiliary lamps in the form of strobes, beacons, and warning lamps applicable for a particular type of trailer or region.”

The wiring harness, meanwhile, is a more recent development, providing the trailer manufacturing industry with a complete ‘plug-and-play’ solution. “We create the entire harness – including cutting and stripping the wire, fitting seals, markers and grommets, crimping and moulding suitable connectors,” says Walker. “It’s all just part of our desire to be the best, and make the best product. It’s quite simple, really.”

The second secret behind the on-going success of the global brand is less quantifiable than R&D investment, but just as important to understand why the company is so close to the Who’s Who in global trailer building – including US powerhouse Wabash, Chinese giant CIMC and European juggernaut Schmitz Cargobull. It’s the ability to listen, summarised in a phrase borrowed from management guru Stephen R. Covey: “Seek to understand, and then seek to be understood.”

Truck-Lite’s Tim Walker, who is currently working on expanding the company’s footstep in Asia, has been following that simple truth ever since he entered the industry. “At the end of the day, our clientele will always know best what they need. Perhaps they don’t understand exactly how to tackle an issue on the technical side, but they do know what results they are expecting. That’s why I always remind myself to listen first. Sometimes business is more about asking the right question than providing a standardised answer – and I believe that’s something Truck-Lite has become very good at.”

One result of that simple commitment to listening is the creation of a system of independent sub-brands to simplify the selection process within the Truck-Lite universe. While the original Truck-Lite product was designed for the US market, it has grown into a global brand with a portfolio to meet a wide range of applications in the harshest environments across the globe over the last 50 years. The European-style Rubbolite brand is known as a strong and durable heavy-duty alternative, and also comprises looms and harnesses, for instance. FER is the Truck-Lite brand focusing on the automotive industry, and the Signal-Stat range is focused around the company’s white LED light range.

According to Tim Walker, that high level of brand distinction is the final piece to the puzzle of maintaining brand awareness on a global scale, next to technological excellence and proximity to the target market. “It’s a complex answer to a complex question,” he concludes. “Communication is tricky, and it certainly takes patience and practice. But one thing I know for sure: The lessons I have learned translate into satisfied clients who trust our ability to understand their perspective and support them in accomplishing their objectives. To me, that’s a good basis to doing business.”

And, after spending a whole year in Asia to strengthen the Truck-Lite brand in the Far East, he can add one final lesson: “Never underestimate the power of culture. As much as we’d like them to, cultures don’t come with any hard and fast rules. With the steady influence of globalisation, all cultures are in a state of change. It may sound a bit vague, but being switched on doesn’t only mean providing a great product. It’s about being a great business partner.”

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