Kögel: The Power of Innovation

German company Kögel is one of the oldest manufacturing businesses for transport equipment in Europe – and certainly the one with the most captivating history.

Founded on 1 May 1934 by Franz Xaver Kögel as a wagon making business, the company rapidly grew into a global powerhouse and retained a spot amongst Germany’s top five for most of the century. It wasn’t until the 2000s that the company’s fairy-tale rise came to temporary halt, when the tough economic environment in Europe forced it to go into voluntary administration. 

However, even that unparalleled setback didn’t knock it off course – in fact, it helped make it more successful than ever. Today, Kögel is the third-largest trailer brand in Europe and rapidly expanding across Europe.

Just in time for the company’s 80th birthday in May, Global Trailer had a chance to talk to Kögel’s General Manager, Thomas Heckel, and find out how the company’s extraordinary history has helped shape the brand we know today.

“Like any company in Europe, Kögel had to endure a setback over the past decade, but I’m glad to announce we have overcome it in a professional way. Today, Kögel is a reliable, family-owned and run company with a wealth of know-how to build on for the future”, Heckel says – demonstrating the kind of fortitude to address past difficulties many a business journalist found lacking in European companies during the GFC.

Especially the global economic crisis in 2009 caused positive change in the Kögel business, as it brought in a new leading figure, Ulrich Humbaur, head of a family-owned trailer building company based in Augsburg, some 50km east of the Kögel head office in Burtenbach.

“Ever since Kögel’s current owner, Ulrich Humbaur, took over the brand five years ago, we were able to triple both sales and turnover and employed over 100 new people,” says Heckel – pointing out that the involvement of Humbaur brought stability and continuity back to Kögel while retaining the 80-year-old brand as an independent entity.

Under Humbaur’s guidance, Kögel was restructured to focus on two core divisions – line haul and construction. Arguably the most important move of the Humbaur era, though, was the inclusion of a competence centre for sandwich panels into the Kögel network.

Now trading as ‘Kögel Pur Ferro’, the Duingen-based centre was acquired to in-source the competence needed to expand Kögel’s on-highway portfolio. According to Heckel, having access to a self-developed sandwich panel and the resulting launch of a refrigerated product line was key to Kögel’s current success.

Unsurprisingly, he is actively embracing the company’s turbulent past. “In our industry, nothing counts more than tradition, experience and competence,” he says. “It’s our job to combine tradition, present and future in a way that is best suited for the company. The past is represented by the 80-year anniversary of the brand; the present is expressed in our solid market position; and the future will be shaped by customer-oriented product optimisation and strategic partnerships. 

“If you look back, you will soon realise that Kögel has shaped the history of the transport equipment industry not only in Germany, but around the world,” he adds.

In 1961, for instance, Kögel developed the first refrigerated semi-trailer fully made from plastic, followed by the first demountable platform vehicle with support legs in 1965 and the first self-supporting round aluminium tipper body in 1966. The company also developed a patented centre-axle tipping trailer in 1974 and opened the first cathodic dip-paint coating plant for commercial vehicle frames in 2001. In 2005, Kögel introduced the over-sized ‘Euro’ model, which was extended by 1.3m compared to a standard semi; while 2012 saw the unveiling of a CNG trailer that featured an additional gas tank below the chassis to feed a CNG-driven truck.

“Kögel has offered tailor-made solutions from the year dot and has always focused on creating long-lasting added value for the forwarding and construction sectors,” says Heckel – admitting that innovation is now the preferred topic in Burtenbach.

“I think the ‘Cool Pur Ferro – quality’ model is the most important vehicle we have developed since Mr Humbaur joined us. The Pur Ferro panel allowed us to position the product in the premium segment of the market, which is the right environment for Kögel to compete in. That’s what a host of media representatives from around the world agreed on after extensive testing, actually. “Heckel would nominate the Euro model too, but current legislation is making for an extremely complicated business environment that is holding back the extra-long design. “It’s a smart concept allowing transport businesses to save up to 10 per cent in fuel, and most people wouldn’t even recognise the difference. But since the EU started a centralised over-sized vehicle trial instead of registering the Euro with a special permit like they did before, there is too much scepticism out there.”

While a new draft law to allow for a more flexible truck and trailer design was backed by the EU parliament in March, EU member states still need to agree the formal wording, which could delay the implementation of the new law until 2015 or 2016.

The upcoming IAA trade show in Hannover would be an opportunity for Kögel to unveil a new product that could offset slowing Euro sales, but Heckel remains tight-lipped about what could be on Show at Europe’s largest trucking event.

In line with current industry trends, it is likely for Kögel to embrace a more modular production system, which would also simplify the diversification process – but Heckel won’t confirm or deny anything until the opening day in September ‘14.

What Heckel does like to talk about, however, is the brand’s rediscovered people focus. “Under Mr Humbaur’s guidance, we have developed a strong family spirit again,” he says. “The passion and drive of our people is what has kept the Kögel brand alive, and it’s become a real point of difference in an increasingly globalised marketplace.” 

As a result, Thomas Heckel is expecting growing sales despite a highly volatile global business environment. “We continue to focus on developing products that directly respond to our customers’ needs,” he says.

“We are still a strong brand, representing quality, reliability and know-how, but also approachability. Our mission is to translate that image into future sales to ensure the next 80 years will be equally successful as the first – and maybe a bit less tempestuous.”

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