Humble and hungry

When CIMC Vehicles came in at the top of Global Trailer’s first international OEM ranking in 2016, the mastermind behind the company’s remarkable rise to fame did not react like many in the industry would have expected him to.

Instead of praising the corporation’s expanding reach and economies of scale, David Li mused about the importance of ‘regionality’ and local rootedness in modern manufacturing. Having just welcomed Northern Irish company SDC Trailers to the ever-growing CIMC Vehicles family, he said the company was now placing more value on local specifications and preferences, with scale to be created on the backend only – for example in finance, design and business administration.

“The goal is to build a global powerhouse by tapping into local knowledge with strong regional brands,” he explained with view to the €91.7 million deal. “At CIMC Vehicles, each local entity is contributing to the group, while the group is building the supply chain and financing infrastructure, which is where savings can be made.”

A year on, SDC Trailers has neatly slotted into that somewhat dualistic framework, with Li referring to the brand’s strong local entrenchment as the main reason for what turned out to be an “exceptionally smooth” integration process. In fact, many an expert now says SDC Trailers has become the embodiment of CIMC Vehicles’ new growth strategy. Hardly a brand in the vast and varied world of trailer building is more in line with Li’s “think global, act local” mentality, and no one personifies it more accurately than newly appointed CEO, Enda Cushnahan.

Born and bred a short distance from SDC Trailers’ head office in Toomebridge, Northern Ireland, he joined the organisation aged 23 as an accountant and was quickly earmarked as a future executive by Mark Cuskeran, whom he replaced on 1 July this year.

Cushnahan worked his way up diligently since joining the firm – moving from accounting into financial controlling and eventually taking on a board position with SDC Trailers’ parent company, Retlan Group, before being elevated to CEO following Cuskeran’s departure from the role.

After 19 years with the company, Cushnahan lives and breathes the SDC Trailers spirit and is unashamedly proud of the strong connection the company has maintained with the local community. He still knows “almost all” of his 900-odd staff by name and made it his personal mission to ensure each and every employee is aware of the role they play in the continuation of SDC’s success. Humility, to him, is a virtue that must be portrayed from the top down.

“I know it’s very much a cliché, but we are a local business that is very conscious about working with local people and investing back in the community,” he says. “I’ve experienced it first hand since I came on board – the buy-in from our people has always impressed me. They truly care about the business and understand that what they put in individually will pay off for everyone.”

In accordance with Li’s “think global, act local” mantra, however, local rootedness is but one facet of SDC Trailers’ new CEO. Complementing his deep understanding of SDC Trailers’ collective mindset, there is a reverse side to Cushnahan that is more business-minded, more enterprising – and vastly more confident.

When he was appointed Commercial Director of the Retlan Group with responsibility for the Used Trailer division in 2011, for example, he turned the unit’s retail distribution model upside down and consciously moved away from a dealer-centric system – in turn opening up new markets for used stock and expanding SDC Trailers’ global footprint.

Building on that mindset, one of his first actions as Chief Executive was the instalment of a dedicated international sales team, and while he says European powerhouses Schmitz Cargobull and Krone “seem out of reach” for SDC Trailers on the global stage, he adds that expansion into the northern European market “remains a business priority”.
“SDC has evolved into a strong northern European brand under Mark’s leadership,” he says. “That’s what ultimately got us on CIMC’s radar, too – the brand promise Mark developed around quality manufacturing, reliability and good, old craftsmanship. Coming from such a strong base, it’s easy to dream big.”

Ever so humble, Cushnahan doesn’t get tired of paying tribute to his mentor of 10 years, who led SDC Trailers through the Global Final Crisis with stern resolve and what Cushnahan calls a “salient” commitment to his people. “Mark was the driving force during the downturn – he’s been the constant we needed as a business. He didn’t take the easy way of making people redundant, but instead helped us bring new efficiencies to the business and run it as lean as possible to get through the slump.”

Cushnahan says he studied Cuskeran’s every move during the Crisis and was impressed by his commitment to not just solving his customers’ problems, but those of his customers’ customers. “That’s where you start adding real value,” he says. “Mark taught me to be critical and constantly reassess every product and every service we provide to make sure we’re still in sync with the market. It’s been an impressive business lesson working with him. Between 2012 and 2016, we doubled our production from 100 units per week to 200.”

According to the 42-year-old, it was Cuskeran who gave him the confidence to take on the new role at a young age, too. “Mark believed in my ability to take the business forward and make the right decisions on behalf of the company, which has been hugely encouraging. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without his guidance.”

With the architect of SDC Trailers’ revival now out of the picture, Cushnahan is well aware that the lessons learned during his ‘apprenticeship’ are now more valuable than ever before – especially with Britain going through a historic political readjustment. “I won’t be able to stash away what Mark taught me about crisis management and pretend it’s business as usual from here,” he explains. “Brexit is still very much on top of our mind, and the market may well decline before it goes up again – that’s the nature of the beast. As such, we have to stay just as switched on as we had to be during the most turbulent times.”

One strategic move initiated by Cuskeran is high on his mentee’s agenda, too – expanding the brand’s reach beyond the UK. “We’re the strongest brand in the UK, but I think we have more to give than that,” says Cushnahan. “Mark has started promoting SDC Trailers in the Middle East and I intend to continue that work. I also see more potential for us in Scandinavia, for example. SDC equipment is known to be tough and sturdy, so I think markets like Denmark and Sweden suit it well.”

Unsurprisingly, Cushnahan’s plan is perfectly aligned with that of David Li, who took equal interest in Cuskeran’s vision for SDC Trailers during last year’s sale negotiation. In a subsequent Global Trailer interview, Li and Cuskeran announced that CIMC Vehicles would split the European market into four key regions to be served by four local businesses – with SDC Trailers responsible for the ‘north’. As such, Cushnahan’s strategic outlook could be seen as a logical continuation of that process.

In intensifying SDC Trailers’ involvement in the Middle East and hinting at additional growth opportunities in “peripheral” Europe and overseas, however, some analysts say Cushnahan is now making a conservative first step to bringing his own perspective to the table, too.

“Naturally, what we do under the SDC Trailers label has to be in line with the overall strategy set by CIMC Vehicles, but we do have the freedom to explore new growth avenues,” he admits. “I am well aware of the strength of the German competition, for example, but there’s still a lot of potential in areas they don’t service. And Europe isn’t the only continent, either. If we can leverage the resources brought in from CIMC Vehicles and align with the overall organisation, there will be more untapped growth potential for SDC.”

With global industry personality, David Li, in his corner, Cushnahan says the SDC Trailers team is more bullish about the future than it ever was. “CIMC Vehicles coming on board has been a great experience, especially meeting and learning from David,” he says. “He’s a great communicator and incredibly well-connected in the industry. I think with his guidance we can achieve a lot for the SDC brand going forward.”

Despite that increasingly global outlook, however, Cushnahan says the heart of SDC is still beating in Toomebridge. As confident as he is about the future, he says maintaining a strong local foundation is still the main priority. That’s also true for Cushnahan himself. “I place a lot of trust in my people and will certainly not lose touch as we develop the brand,” he says. “I want to be the kind of CEO I would follow myself, someone who lives the values they preach. I hope I can recreate the aura of calm Mark emitted even when times got tough.”

In line with Cuskeran’s focus on market research and trailer innovation, Cushnahan says listening to feedback will remain SDC Trailers’ strategy of choice – regardless of the target market. “We’ve been given two ears and one mouth for a reason,” he says. “I know I am new to the role and have to earn my team’s trust, but I also hope my history in the business shows that I am here to stay. I think our closeness as a team and commitment to hard work has always been our core strength, so if I find a way to not just conserve, but amplify it, SDC Trailers is a force to be reckoned with – both locally and globally.”

Fast Fact
SDC recently opened two state-of-the-art in-house training facilities at its headquarters in Toomebridge, Northern Ireland. The 2,700 sq ft (ca 250m2) facilities feature miniature trailer models for staff training and product development.

Fast Fact
SDC Trailers’ new CEO, Enda Cushnahan, is especially bullish about the brand’s potential overseas. “As long as there is a need for reliable transport equipment somewhere, there is no reason why we can’t be there,” he says, adding SDC recently exhibited at the Transport 2017 Show in Herning, Denmark, where it collected “a number of orders”.

Fast Fact
According to Enda Cushnahan, his rise to the CEO position would not have been possible without the mentorship of SDC Trailers’ leadership team, especially Don Campbell, Managing Director of the Retlan Group between 2000 and 2007, Campell’s successor, Mark Cuskeran, as well as Chris McCauley, CFO of the Retlan Group since 2009, and Paul Bratton, SDC’s Commercial Director, who is based out of the company’s Mansfield site as has been with the business since 1991, starting off as a fabricator.

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