The ink under his new contract had been dry since spring 2017, but due to a 12-month non-compete clause in his old one, it wasn’t until recently that Josef Warmeling was finally able to move into his new office at the Kögel head office in Burtenbach, a small country town northwest of Munich, Germany.
It’s hardly surprising that the company’s new General Manager responsible for Western Europe, Used Vehicle Business, Value Added Services, as well as Key Account Management for associations and OEMs didn’t have a second to waste when the first of April came around. After more than 30 years in the commercial vehicle industry – almost 20 of them with a northern German trailer specialist – he says there’s nothing quite like helping transport businesses solve the complex logistical challenges of our times.
Settling into the new environment at Europe’s third-largest OEM thus proved a surprisingly smooth experience, he explains. “Of course the decision to change wasn’t easy after working for a single company for almost 20 years – and with pleasure, I might add – but if someone like Ulrich Humbaur asks you to join the board of management of one of Europe’s leading trailer brands, there’s not much to think about.”
According to Warmeling, Humbaur, the sole owner of Kögel and repeat recipient of the ‘Man of the Year’ Award given out by a German logistics magazine, is a “man who wants to change something, who is highly motivated and committed” – just like himself. Warmeling is an outspoken fan of Ray Kroc, the legendary, sometimes controversial mastermind behind global fast food chain, McDonald’s – known just as well for his fervour and persistence in the face of imminent failure as for the invention of the burger franchise – as well as political behemoth Winston Churchill and iconic US businessman, John Francis ‘Jack’ Welch, the former chairman and CEO of General Electric.
“Kroc was a man who did not shy away from any risk, who had a goal and stuck to that goal,” he explains. “Welsh, meanwhile was an inspiring management figure who taught us to control our own destiny or someone else will. And Churchill, he is a political giant, a personality who stuck to his values and stood before his people. Bold, brave and tireless in his resolve during the war, he inspired a nervous and hesitant Britain through his sheer energy and force of personality to defy stark odds and never give in.”
Giving in, he adds, is not in his personal vocabulary either. The often-proclaimed struggle for the number three spot in Europe between the long-established Kögel organisation and up-and-coming rivals Wielton, Schwarzmüller and Kässbohrer does not particularly concern him, for example. “We are the clear number three in the market and we will be in the future,” he says confidently, albeit admitting that the space in the 9,000 to 14,000-unit bracket is slowly filling up (see breakout box).
“What competition does is revive the business and drive us forward. Being constantly challenged is the only way to measure ourselves against the requirements of our customers and to become better and faster at what we do.”
Among other duties, Warmeling will be responsible for key account management Kögel – a skill sharpened for decades at a competing brand – as well as the expansion of value added services. He will also be the driving force behind the company’s collaborative work with associations and OEMs, he adds. “In the future, I see Kögel lead from the front as an innovative partner of the transport industry, supporting transport businesses in facing the challenges of a highly volatile, changing logistics marketplace.”
To Warmeling, the commercial road transport industry is currently seeing a historic change of direction that will dramatically impact the role of trailer manufacturing businesses in the future. “I have been working in the transport equipment space for almost 30 years now, and it’s safe to say I’ve never seen it change as quickly as it did over the past decade. When I started in trailer building, we developed equipment internally and then sold it – the options were limited. Today, you need to be a lot more in sync with the market and flexible enough to adapt to new trends and regulatory changes on the spot. It’s the perfect storm of market dynamics, technological progress and the need for more efficiency – something we will no doubt experience at the IAA Show in Hanover, too.”
The end of the trailer as we know it, however, is something Kögel’s new General Manager cannot imagine. “I’m deeply convinced that the trailer industry has a future and will develop substantially in the years to come,” he says. “The challenge will be to keep up with the speed of change and not fall behind on new ways of communication.”
In a highly regulated market like trailer building, he says the manifold challenges of the future may actually prove beneficial for OEMs creative enough to translate them into “innovative momentum,” as he puts it. “In some areas the trailer is merely a commodity, but with customers having more and more choice – think axles, cooling units, telematics – there’s now more opportunities to differentiate yourself as an OEM, too – just wait for the next IAA. At the same time, businesses need flexible financing and aftersales service models, so there’s a lot the OEM can do now to mitigate the risk of becoming commoditised in the eye of the customer.”
The risk of a market downturn in 2018 or 2019, meanwhile, is miniscule according to the expert. While some analysts have been warning of an imminent course correction, he says a significant change in volumes is unlikely until we reach the end of the decade. “The German market has always been a reasonably stable one. Of course experience shows that we live in an increasingly volatile world where markets dynamics shift unexpectedly, so it’s always wise to stay alert. Slight fluctuations must always be expected and must be cushioned accordingly.”
According to Warmeling, one variable capable of causing such fluctuations is metropolitan congestion, an issue that has prompted many a German OEM to focus more strongly on shortened trailers and truck bodies, or even all-new urban logistics solutions that fundamentally reinterpret our idea of urban transport. With Kögel sister company, Humbaur, having specialised in small trailer and truck body design for decades, however, he says there is a strong case for the Kögel/ Humbaur family to actually benefit from the disruptive trend.
In a best case scenario, he elaborates, “Kögel’s business will get a boost by a increasing volumes of freight bound for regional distribution hubs, and Humbaur’s business will be growing due to demand for transport solutions from that point to the end customer – I can see a lot of synergies arise in that context.”
Whether or not such synergies could ultimately culminate the genesis of autonomously operating trailers, however, is all but speculation, he continues. The vision of a ‘trailer drone’ as outlined by Global Trailer correspondent Arnold Kioko Muthui in edition 39 (March 2018) is something he simply cannot see becoming reality in the short-term. “I am convinced that something like that will come eventually,” he says. “But personally, I believe that people will continue to play an important role in this space in the next 20 years or so. On the one hand, legislation will continue to stand in the way. On the other hand, managing the safety of all road users – trucks and cars alike – will remain a crucial issue for a while. Just look at the autonomous car malfunction in Arizona recently – the technology is anything but perfect.
“But, there are interesting projects in Switzerland and elsewhere where drones carry out transport tasks as we speak, so it would be foolish to ignore the trend. It’s exciting and these are topics that will influence us and the generation after us, so we’ll keep observing it. For now, there’s enough work directly ahead of us, though.”
According to Josef Warmeling, transport equipment design is anything but a boring industry – he would happily recommend smart, driven college students to join the profession today, he insists. “The Smart Generation will help us think and act in whole new dimensions,” he says – admitting that its involvement may well take different shapes than in the past. “We are certainly interested in identifying the industry’s future requirements together with start-ups, for example.”
Kögel (16,341 units built in 2017, +26 per cent compared to the previous year) ranked ninth in Global Trailer’s 2017 Global OEM Ranking, making it the third-largest European OEM behind Schmitz Cargobull (118,631, +18 per cent) and Krone (48,000, -2 per cent). It is closely trailed by Poland’s up-and-coming Wielton brand (13,900, +12%). Tirsan/Kässbohrer (10,220, +10%) and Schwarzmüller (8,866, +14%), who also claim rights to third place in Europe, follow with some distance.
In March 2018, Germany’s top administrative court ruled that cities have the right to ban diesel engines in an effort to take action against air pollution. According to some media reports, the historic decision could affect an estimated 12 million vehicles, with only those conforming to the Euro VI standard considered safe. Analysts say the decision could have wide-ranging consequences for the urban logistics market, with many expecting a push toward smaller, less impactful equipment.
Q: Congratulations on the new role. When you tell friends and family about your job, how do you explain what you do – and what’s the common reaction after introducing them to the world of trailer building? Do they fathom just how interlinked the industry is with their everyday lives, or is there a disconnect?
A: Thank you very much, I’m glad to be here. It’s indeed not an unusual question, and I often try to respond by explaining the influence transport and logistics have on our present and future lives. Transport is the driving force of the economy, spurred on by the ever-increasing demands of the consumer society. To meet these requirements, more and more packaging units have to be transported. Trailers are nothing more than large packaging units – on wheels.
Q: Fast-forward 20 years into the future: How would you like people to remember your time at Kögel?
A: As a man of action, who has motivated, challenged and encouraged his team and thus led Kögel successfully into the future as one of the main players of the industry in Europe.
Q: A personal question: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a ‘favourite failure’ of yours?
A: I am firmly convinced that every person needs to experience failure to be successful. In my life there were always failures, but there is no favourite failure. Much more important is that there are more success stories than failures. Even more important is to think about every failure, to look ahead and not glance in the rear-view mirror for too long, in order to improve things and to keep moving forward.