Despite being the second-largest Eurozone economy after Germany, the proud nation of France is still struggling to bounce back from the slowdown that befell the continent back in 2008. “There is an economic and social emergency,” President François Hollande said as recently as January, echoing a statement he made after the gruesome Paris attacks in November 2015.
Next to national security, Hollande’s main concern is France’s soaring unemployment. Even though the Grande Nation recently began to emerge from years of stagnation, it has failed to create enough jobs to reduce the pool of 3.5 million people seeking work. Growing at an annual pace of little more than one per cent, it is too weak to reduce unemployment, and with it social precariousness in the marginalised banlieues – suburban enclaves where people face particularly high hurdles in finding permanent work.
Amid that tension comes the success story of €140 million trailer manufacturing business Lamberet. Almost bankrupt in 2009, the refrigerated van specialist was taken over by Chinese investor Xinfei in May 2015 and has since not only grown in revenue, but also added some 100 staff to its workforce – an increase of more than 10 per cent.
Given President Holland’s gloomy assessment of the French economy, the company’s remarkable revival could give the nation’s beat-up psyche a welcome boost: Founded in St Cyr sûr Menthon, a small town near the Saone river in the Bourgogne region, north of Lyon, Lamberet is situated in the area with the highest unemployment growth rate in all of France*. By staying true to a region where positive economic news are few and far between, CEO Erick Méjean is confident that it can set a positive example for the storm-tossed economy and contribute to ending the emergency unfolding around him.
In fact, with Xinfei now providing much needed financial security, it is Méjean’s proclaimed goal to double production within five years from now and start up a fifth manufacturing plant to keep up with growing demand in the medium and light-duty segment of the market.
Albeit known for its refrigerated trailer expertise, Lamberet’s ambitious growth plan is largely based on the design and manufacture of temperature-controlled bodies for rigid trucks and vans, Méjean says. “Smaller vehicles with refrigerated bodies are very popular in the south of Europe with its tight, ancient city centres. Aside from France, we deliver a lot to northern Italy, for example. This is one reason why we are planning to establish a new production plant, to cope with the growth on the smaller end of the market.”
But, diversifying into the light-duty segment of the market is only part of the plan. In realigning the brand, the management team around Méjean also decided to focus on highly specialised niche products to differentiate the brand from the powerful German competition. A first step into that direction was the introduction of the Lamberet SR2 model, and based on it the launch of variants like the Super City, which features a steering system and was first shown at last year’s Solutrans show in Lyon.
Other examples of successful SR2 variants are Lamberet’s Super Beef model, which can boast a wider track for more stability and a reinforced ceiling; the CX version, which is aimed at the growing aerodynamics market; and the Green Liner, which was designed to reduce weight and improve fuel economy.
At Solutrans, Lamberet also showed a new, intermodal-ready design – again positioning it in the specialty vehicle bracket – and a new model targeting the booming pharmaceutical transport market, where regulatory guidelines are especially strict.
Despite the surge in new models, though, Méjean says his goal is to never compromise on quality. “We’re trying to find a balance between the extras we can offer and what our production line can handle,” he says. “It appears that this is much more than we thought.”
With German manufacturers like Schmitz Cargobull and Krone considered a “big threat” to smaller players like Lamberet, Méjean says the brand has to stand out by being different and providing added value. “We’ve won numerous Innovation Awards over the past five years, which is a sign of where our strengths lie,” he says. “The one we won in Hanover [at the 2014 IAA Commercial Vehicle Show, ed.] was very special to us, for example.
“We intend to be successful in segments where quality rules and where customers have specific wishes. The best way to achieve this is to make sure that a customer comes back to buy from us, because there was never anything wrong with his first Lamberet vehicle.”
Yet, just how far can quality optimisation go in an already extremely mature market? According to Méjean, there is always room to create points of difference – for example by registering every batch of glue used to form the refrigerated box. “Should a customer come back with a problem, the factory can find out the exact specification of the glue used on that very production day,” he explains – adding the database covers the entire last decade.
On top of that, Méjean says Lamberet also takes samples of all other chemicals used during production to allow for a thorough investigation should anything go wrong. “Everything is tested constantly, just to make sure that nothing could absorb water at any time during a trailer’s lifetime and damage the isolation values of the refrigerated body. [To do so,] Lamberet produces every trailer from scratch.”
On the chassis front, Méjean says Lamberet has been following the trend to adopt a modular design concept “for a long time”, enabling smoother production and reducing lead times. “We started with SR01 model in 2000, because we realised that bolts are stronger than welding lines. Another important advantage is that a bolted chassis is easier to repair after a crash.”
With all production processes under constant scrutiny, Méjean says the manufacture of all trailers and rigid truck bodies will remain with Lamberet’s main factory in the Bourgogne region, but the company recently also moved to exporting as CKD-units – particularly to Eastern Europe and Canada. “Exported trailers are to be built up locally as it is too expensive to export completely finished trailers to their country of destination over the road,” says Méjean. “But it’s definitely a growth area.”
Bucking the trend in crisis-stricken France, Méjean’s strategy is so successful that Lamberet recently went back to working three shifts per day, in turn creating dozens of new manufacturing jobs – a category that was hit especially hard in the wake of the GFC. And with the new Chinese ownership providing proactive support, he is confident there is more to come: “Although we first have to gear up production over here, there’s much to expect from the almost non-existent Chinese trailer market. It is a huge country with many cities and perfect roads, but there are not many trailers there at all. It’s a great opportunity for us, and for French manufacturing.”
*Source: European Commission