Knorr-Bremse: Full steam ahead

Dr Peter Laier had to jump in at the deep end when he took the lead of Knorr-Bremse’s Commercial Vehicle Systems division in January. Far from relaxed, his first nine months in office not only saw the opening of a whole new, €90 million Development Centre in Munich, but also the acquisition of companies like GT Group and Tedrive and a headline-making bidding war with ZF for the buyout of Swedish braking technology specialist, Haldex. Global Trailer met Laier at the IAA Commercial Vehicle Show in Hanover to find out just how intense the settling-in period truly was.

Q: Dr Laier, you must have had a busy first nine months on the job given Knorr-Bremse’s recent M&A activity – not to mention the company’s on-going product development work. How did you experience it all?
A: It’s been a demanding, but very positive experience. Regardless of what’s been going on around the business, we have stuck to a highly professional on-boarding plan, so I always had the support I needed. Naturally there was a lot of travel involved to familiarise myself with our global network, but overall it’s been an exciting time. Albeit it with little sleep.

Q: What was your personal highlight during that time?
A: That’s a tough question given the amount of initiatives we have launched in a very short period of time. Think about it – we’ve not only introduced a new disc brake generation and a new type of modular telematics system to the European market, but also acquired exciting tech businesses like Tedrive Steering Systems in Germany, GT Group in the UK and the on highway CVS transmission components business from Bosch in Japan. Standard & Poor’s even raised our creditworthiness rating, so it’s safe to say it’s been an incredible run. My personal highlight, however, was the opening of our new Development Centre in Munich. The Centre is the single biggest investment in the history of Knorr-Bremse and as such a clear statement of our belief in Germany as a manufacturing and technology hub.

Q: One highlight must have been the fight for Swedish company, Haldex. With ZF now being out of the race for the proposed take-over, how do you see the chances for Knorr-Bremse to complete the deal*?
A: The fact that a majority of Haldex shareholders did not tender into ZF’s proposal confirms our belief that our bid is the superior option. For Knorr-Bremse, a potential take-over of Haldex remains a very good opportunity to create one of the leading ‘systems suppliers’ in the world, with a clear focus on the commercial vehicle business and attractive growth opportunities. With respect to merger control, our perspectives are unchanged: We are confident that we will obtain all necessary merger control approvals very soon.

Q: You may not have had a lot of time to think about your personal vision beyond the Haldex project, but as the new Executive Board member responsible for the Commercial Vehicle Systems division, which goals have you set yourself?
A: Yes and no – you always come into a role like mine with a certain vision and philosophy, you just have to adjust it over time as you get to know the business and find your place in the organisation.
For now, I’d like to focus on increasing our capability to innovate and creating genuine added value for vehicle manufacturers and operators alike. I think added value is where future opportunities are hidden, hence our push to become an even more integrated systems supplier for the industry. In German, we call it Systemkompetenz. To succeed at that, we need to continue to improve all relevant indicators – quality, on-time delivery and customer satisfaction on the one side, and the continuous development of innovative technologies and system solutions on the other side.
Only by broadening our scope and keeping up the momentum on every level can we play an active part in preparing the ground for fully automated driving, for example.

Q: In line with that, how would you describe your personal leadership style?
A: I consider myself a strong team player, which is important when you talk about systems integration and collaboration. As such, I have a very clear focus on developing and motivating my team – herein lies the future of our industry. I have to admit my approach is challenging  and very hands-on, but I’d like to think it’s always fair and focused on the best outcome for the business.

Q: Speaking of which, innovation in the transport equipment industry has long been focusing on safety and efficiency, but now a new set of buzzwords is emerging – revolving primarily around connectivity, automation and autonomy. Just how impactful will that change be for the industry at large and Knorr-Bremse?
A: I’d say safety and efficiency are still so-called mega-trends, but you’re right, automated driving and connectivity are becoming more and more important. Knorr-Bremse has been working in the driver assistance field for quite some time now and also embraced digitalisation and automation early on – just think of our lane-keep technology, emergency braking assist or the award-winning iTap system, which is now used, for example, by Schmitz Cargobull. We have defined a clear roadmap for new functions of driver assistance and automated driving, which we are sharing now with our customers to jointly define the way forward. The impact of these technologies will be substantial and likely change the entire industry as we know it.

Q: Do you think Knorr-Bremse is well prepared to take on the challenges that come with the dawning age of electric mobility and autonomous driving?
A: As I said, we are determined to play an active role here. For driver assistance, the first steps have already been taken with our lane departure warning system, adaptive cruise control and emergency braking assistant.
From here we will explore blind spot, congestion and lane keeping assistance, as well as autonomous yard manoeuvering – you’ve seen some of it at the IAA Show already as a next step in the direction of autonomous driving functions. As for electric mobility: We’re working on it in the background together with our colleagues from the rail division and will be prepared when we think there is a breakthrough.

Q: With that in mind, is it still correct to refer to Knorr-Bremse as a ‘braking technology specialist’, as the name suggests, or should we re-think how to categorise the business?
A: Let me start by saying we’re very proud of our name and tradition. Knorr-Bremse’s origin lies in braking technology, and that’s still our core business. But we keep building a whole eco-system around it, from air supply, treatment and distribution technology through to powertrain equipment such as transmission control systems or EGR valves. Then there is our driver assistance arm, where the acquisition of Tedrive will open up additional opportunities to supply our customers with highly integrated and efficient system solutions as well as steering on a steel drive technology.  And don’t forget we have a rail division, which is doing much more than brakes as well. Overall it’s becoming more complex, but to us it’s still very straightforward and in line with what Knorr-Bremse has always stood for – reliability, safety and innovation.

Q: You are now also moving into the service and maintenance field. What inspired you to do so, and how does it fit in with that vision?
A: When you look at the on-going digitalisation of our systems – from iTap through to our new disc brake generation called Synact – it made sense for us to bundle our aftermarket activities under the Knorr-Bremse TruckServices label. It will offer access to our full diagnostics, maintenance and repair services competence, as well as Knorr-Bremse’s online services, training and bespoke advice services. Why? Because we think it’s the next logical step. The integration of new sensors and actuators is necessary to facilitate the kind of functionality needed for automated driving or condition-based maintenance – so it made sense for us to make use of the knowledge we already have and support our customers in the service domain, too. Data-based, predictive maintenance will be the future. In that regard, the Alltrucks joint venture is a perfect strategic partner, too.

*At the time of inverview, the deal is still pending.

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