Digital Dexterity

  

Pieter-Bas Broshuis, the ambitious Chief Executive behind iconic Dutch family business, Broshuis, would have had every reason to relax going into last year’s Christmas break. With hardly a slot left on the company’s 2017 production schedule, a new office building completed and a revolutionary new website up and running, he had seemingly achieved each and every goal he had set himself for 2016 by the time the holidays came around. And yet he didn’t even contemplate slowing down.

With the memory of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) etched deeply in his memory, Broshuis doesn’t take anything for granted anymore – even taking time off for Christmas. The 130-year-old family business only just survived the last slowdown, he says, and the string of layoffs it caused is still haunting him today – almost a decade after the fateful market crash.

“After the crisis is before the crisis,” he says with stern resolve, referencing a slew of research suggesting that the catch-up effect caused by the GFC will die down and create a new market equilibrium some time in 2018 – at a level 30 per cent below the current order volume. “Having to say farewell to a significant percentage of your workforce is the last thing you want to experience, so resting on my laurels is certainly not an option for me, holiday or not.”

Innovation, the 54-year-old explains, was the key to protecting the low loader specialist from imminent bankruptcy back in 2009, when the full effect of the GFC swept through Europe – making it an even more important strategic tool now that business is going well. Back then, Broshuis took a risk by keeping his entire engineering team on board and asking it “to come up with something new”, which led to the development of the SL range.

The versatile design, which featured an independent wheel suspension and a low and wide loading bed that was able to handle even the sharpest steering angles, proved instrumental in turning the tide.

“The crisis was a tough lesson for all of us. We simply weren’t prepared for it and had to dig deep to survive,” he admits. “Now it’s my job to make sure that if equipment is bought during the next downturn, it’ll be made by us – and ongoing innovation will be key to that.”

One out-of-the-box tool that Broshuis expects to help his company stay relevant during the next downturn is a new corporate website, which is widely considered one of the most advanced in the industry. “The new website does much more than just representing our company on the Internet,” he explains. “It’s a strategic business tool for us that will tie our clientele closer to the brand and allow us to communicate more efficiently on every organisational level.”

The new website features an online parts shop as well as a secure customer portal, he says: “Our customers now have access to a unique platform where can they manage their entire Broshuis fleet online. Every fleet is different, so being able to virtually manage your own and get immediate access to the right parts is revolutionary.

“You can technically manage your entire business relationship with Broshuis online. You have access to drawings of your equipment, all correspondence including invoices – everything.”

Broshuis’ most progressive new online tool, however, is an automotive-style configurator that is coupled to a price indicator – a rarity in the notoriously cagey trailer industry. “People use the Internet all the time to familiarise themselves with all sorts of stuff,” he says. “Most of us now configure a new car on the web before we go and see a local dealer, so you need a website that is able to connect to people’s everyday reality – on top of the traditional face-to-face interaction you eventually have in the shop.

“We have a range of conversion tools on the site to facilitate that connection between online and real life – from live chat and video calling through to classic email. Customers can instantly access one of our sales people, a homologation expert or a service manager, which is making the whole experience a lot smoother and also more transparent.”

He adds, “We don’t expect our customers to buy entire trailers on the web, but we guide them to the point where they know what they want, and they can see what it looks like in a 3D model. Just like with a new Mercedes, for example. We foresee that with a website like this, we are much more accessible globally – as a brand and as a business partner. You can compare equipment, you can get a first idea about pricing, it’s all transparent.”

Broshuis hopes the new online tool will take “some of the heat off our pre-sales, sales and aftersales departments”, especially when it comes to managing replacement parts. “In the low loader business, trailers are typically equipped with loading ramps. Even though they’re heavy-duty parts, they need replacing every now and then. With us, you can order them online based on your specific trailer design. It speeds up the whole delivery process, and of course we pass the cost saving on, too, when you order online.”

The new website is only one substantial investment Broshuis has held on to despite having to recoup the hit taken during the GFC. “We’ve streamlined our online presence, so we had to do the same with our production system. It needs to be a coherent experience from A to Z,” he says, pointing out that the company’s newest assembly hall has only just been finalised to ensure delivery times remain short.

“We are in a very good position now. We actually have a little waiting time on our products, but with the new building, that’s under control. We’re still hiring engineers as well.”

Even though Broshuis has managed to increase both production quality and output after the crisis and led the company into the digital age, he says some core principles have remained unchanged: All axles are still prepared and painted separately before being mounted, for example, and airlines and hydraulic sub-assemblies are also completed by separate teams before being married to each vehicle. “It’s important to not lose sight of what’s important when you upgrade, so we made sure we kept some core processes the way they were – regardless of how connected the business is,” he explains. “Of course we continue to innovate on an engineering level, but only if the quality remains the same.”

Quality, he explains, is what helped the brand go from strength to strength over the past 130 years, and made it a household name across Europe. Especially over the past half century, he says exports have become the mainstay of the business. “We’ve started delivering to the countries surrounding The Netherlands early on, and soon expanded our market to Germany. During the 1970s, our export quota was already at 75 per cent.”

Today, the company exports eight out of 10 trailers built in Kampen, an old Hanseatic city at the lower reaches of the river Ijssel, where it has been based since 1975. Most of them go to southern Germany, Austria, Scandinavia and Poland, he shares. “With our order books crammed, we are not pushing to improve exports all that much, but our new website is clearly adding to the volume in that category,” says Broshuis. “Customers and prospective clients can find our sales team in any country very quickly now, so it’s a good problem to have.”

Despite the dramatic setback the Dutch OEM experienced during the GFC, Broshuis says having continued to invest in the brand as soon as the worst was over and funding became available again was the right decision. “Business is cyclical, so it shouldn’t hold you back from future-proofing your company. The investments we have made to our production facility have to last for 30 or 40 years, so we knew we had to get them right. We’re also currently investing in a new office here in Kampen, simply because we want the physical experience our customers have when visiting us to be in line with the one we have created online.

“I remember the last time that we upgraded our office, it was shortly before the crisis hit. I actually regretted the investment at the time – and today I know I shouldn’t have. After things improved, it proved to be more than worthwhile. I trust it will be same again with the investments we made in production, R&D, and in our new website. We may have become a bit more prudent post-GFC, but we don’t let it stop us from growing.”

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