Schwarzmüller: Dark Horse

Global Trailer’s much talked-about Global OEM Ranking, unveiled as part of the 2016 IAA Commercial Vehicle Show, not only challenged the traditional notion of trailer manufacturing as a highly fragmented, regionally confined industry, but also brought attention to an array of businesses that have grown to fame outside the media spotlight.

Austrian family business, Schwarzmüller, is one such company. Originally founded in the late 19th century as a forge and still based in a sleepy 1,500-people village halfway between Munich and Vienna, it has grown from local hero to trans-European trust by steadily adding production capacity and updating manufacturing processes over the course of half a century.

Despite the planned departure of ex-Chief Executive Jan Willem Jongert early last year, the company’s three main manufacturing sites’ output increased 13.7 per cent to 8,866 units in 2016, generating total revenues of  €342 million. In 2017, new CEO Roland Hartwig says the company will once again experience double-digit growth, with a goal of €380 million in revenues and some 9,500 vehicles manufactured. Global Trailer met one of the industry’s most ambitious executives to find out why Schwarzmüller is the ‘dark horse’ of European trailer building.

Q: When we last featured Schwarzmüller in Global Trailer in 2014, the company was widely considered an ‘unsung hero’ of European trailer building. Has that perception changed?
A: Absolutely. We launched our ‘2020 Strategy’ in 2014 with the goal of turning over around €450 million and selling more than 10,000 units annually by the end of the decade. I’m glad to say the strategy has worked out well so far – we have increased our turnover the third year in a row and produced 13.7 per cent more units in 2016 than in 2015. We are on track to meet our target, and we’re certainly more visible in the European trailer building scene today.

Q: Apart from a high profile leadership change, how has the Schwarzmüller brand evolved since you took charge?
A: There have been some significant changes to our production processes that allowed us to build 1,000 more vehicles in 2016 with almost the same staff count (currently around 2,240, ed.) – simply by optimising the use of available resources.
Now the focus is on further increasing production speed and reducing throughput times in our three factories in Austria, Hungary and Czech Republic, so we are currently implementing a system where we sequence the entire ‘order to delivery’ process. In one of the pilot projects – a moving floor semi-trailer – we have achieved a 35 per cent reduction in throughput time – that’s a substantial change of pace.

Q: Schwarzmüller has the ambition to establish itself as the number four in European trailer building. With the rise of Wielton over the past two years and a reinvigorated Kögel, how realistic is that goal?
A: It’s good to be ambitious. Schwarzmüller is already the best-selling brand in Austria, where we sold 2,300 vehicles last year, but we also made good use of the high international demand in 2016. Germany, for example, is quickly catching up in importance. 1,920 vehicles were manufactured for that market in 2016 – a 20 per cent increase compared to 2015. Poland saw a similar percentage increase as Germany, while our Italian business grew 50 per cent.
We’ll continue to position Schwarzmüller as an international top player that’s able to produce tailor-made equipment for the benefit of the end-user, but we’re not focusing on being the market leader in any one segment. Instead, we want to be the best performing brand in the business.

Q: In line with that, which key markets will drive the 10-plus per cent revenue hike you’re envisioning for 2017-18?
A: Based on our strong position in Austria, we are able to focus even more on Germany, Poland and Italy, which are the most promising markets for us at the moment – partly because of the EU’s growing infrastructure investment in these countries, which is supporting the local construction industries we are hoping to support.

Q: Does that mean you will focus on tipper production?
A: Our tippers are very well positioned in the market – especially due to our competence in offering more value over the life of the vehicle – but we are still a full service company with a broad range of equipment. If the market demands more plateau semi trailers, for example, we’ll take the opportunity – as long as it fits into the overall Strategy 2020.

Q: Speaking of trailer design: You’ve often referred to building ‘intelligent vehicles’ since you joined the company. What makes a vehicle intelligent?
A: From my point of view, a vehicle is intelligent if it is able to provide you with the most profitable solution for the transport task at hand. For us as a business, that means we have to explore every solution as long as it gives our clientele a surplus benefit. Since trailers don’t have an engine, trends like autonomous driving will only affect us indirectly, though – to generate added value, we have to focus on process integration and the optimisation of interfaces for now. To do so, we will invest a total of €30 million in automating processes and implementing smart production processes until 2020.

Q: In line with that, if you had to summarise the Schwarzmüller value proposition for 2017, what would it be?
A: Schwarzmüller is an international brand offering tailored equipment with a surplus guarantee. We master complexity.

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