Torbjorn Christensson is in it for the long haul

Volvo Trucks South Africa has been one of the star performers of the long-haul industry in recent times, boasting top sales figures in the extra-heavy long market in 2016, due to their advanced safety features, fuel efficiency and after-sales services

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2017 has seen a fierce battle for top spot between the Volvo FH and the Mercedes-Benz Actros, two of the most advanced trucks on the road. But The Volvo Group is not only responsible for the Volvo Trucks brands and servicing the other brands under the umbrella, which includes Mack Trucks, UD Trucks (formerly Nissan Diesel), Renault Trucks and the latest offering for SA shores, Eicher trucks.

Sadly, economic instability has put a dampener on the industry in recent times and it is hoped that a peaceful election and release from recession status will improve confidence levels going forward.

One of the key leaders within the trucking industry is the likeable President of Volvo Group Trucks Southern Africa,Torbjörn Christensson, who has spent the last five-and-a half years in SA, helping build the brand into a powerhouse of safety and perfection.

He is responsible for all Volvo Group Southern Africa truck business, in the expansion markets in the region, and is a Director in UD Trucks in Southern Africa. The knowledgeable Swede is responsible for 940 employees, with a sizable yearly turnover that sees them deliver north of 30 000 trucks annually.

We are standing at the Volvo plant in Durban.

This is a fantastic facility, is a large sum of money being spent here?

Yes, we have, during the last eleven years, spent a lot of money but just recently, we have added on a new facility for the safety systems and calibration of them, so we can produce the trucks locally in South Africa.

I saw a new R6 million machine for wheel alignment, what is the importance thereof?

To calibrate these safety systems, there are radars and cameras and so on and you need to have very precise equipment to do that calibration so the systems work according to specifications. To produce them locally, we needed to do that investment. Our research budget is about 8% of our turnover so a lot of money goes into research and development of these systems. You build on what you have accomplished since 1927 but lately, these systems have taken a quantum leap I would say, going from a safety system to really active safety for the driver, helping the driver to avoid accidents. Before, we worked a lot of passive safety—when an accident occurred the driver should be safe, or we should prevent other pedestrians from getting hurt. Now, we want to avoid accidents, to actually prevent accidents from happening, which would be the best for everybody.

The leadership ethos at Volvo must be safety first?

It has been since Volvo was formed in 1927, our founders actually said safety is to go into anything we design. Cars and trucks will be driven by people and we will be transporting people, so they better be safe. That was a slogan and way back then, it was a totally different story, but with the safety belt and active safety, passive safety and all of that, that is the top priority for us and our strongest commitment—safety.

What is the saving for your customers who have bought all the new safety systems for their trucks?

These systems cost some money but if you look at it, the fully-fledged system costs about R40 000, combined to avoid accidents and also insurance premiums and so on. Compared to other features you add to the truck, this money is quite well spent and many of the customers are starting to realise this because you see the savings in fewer accidents. Repairing a small accident today on a truck is not cheap, there are a lot of electronics and so on, so you better make sure you don’t hit anything, and also keep the driver safe. On the big scale, we can see the big transporters really take this on quite quickly.

R40 000 seems very reasonable if you compare its extras to a luxury BMW for example. Wouldn’t all fleet managers want to take this package?

Well, we see a big uptake. By mid next year, we will probably have half of the trucks produced this way and then eventually, we might decide to make it a standard, because everybody wants to have it, and then it’s easier to have it in a production flow where all trucks have it in the specification.

With the new technology, do you have to train your staff more in order to keep up with the developers?

Well, it is the truck, in general, that is becoming more and more hi-tech, more and more data power computers, calibrations and so on. Most of the features are controlled by electronics so you need to know PCs and mobile phones and things like that.

You need to be comfortable with that and, of course, there are brakes and oil and so on but the truck of today, compared to an advanced car, is even more advanced, with the electronics in the cab.

2016 was a good year for Volvo Trucks. You were a top-seller in the long-haul sector—what were the keys to your success?

We do have a very good product that is competitive and, over years, has proven itself in the market. We also have some very big fleets driving our trucks, which we have a long relationship with. Additionally, we have a good network, which takes care of the customers for us.

Taking care of the customers is priority number one, so that has worked well for us and even in tough times, we have kept on doing what we are supposed to do and that is to sell the trucks, take care of the customers and do the best we can every day.

And as a leader, how do you get the most out of your staff?

I’m fortunate, we have a thousand employees in the group and all of them are needed to contribute. We have not cut that much staff, we need to be prudent on our costs but to take care of the staff and have the leaders involved to help us to develop the group, that has been a top priority and will continue to be a top priority.

What is your outlook for 2018? We’re out of the recession hopefully, is this good for truck sales?

Well, it has been somewhat flattish—a little bit of decrease—and our volumes have actually increased because we have taken some market share. Next year, we don’t foresee too much growth, we are a little bit cautious—it depends on the election and so on. We also have growth outside South Africa, which these factories supply to, so while South Africa might be a little flat, the other markets are expanding. We forecast some growth next year and it could be a surprising year if elections head in a positive direction. We do see that transporters are holding back a little bit on the investments in South Africa.

What does Volvo’s new Kenyan production facility mean for Central Africa?

Those markets, having gone through some elections lately—and there’s still some more to happen in Kenya—but in general, these countries have a lot in front of them. We want to be there early and we are there with the right partner. We have a big opportunity going from quite low levels and quickly growing because a lot is to be done there.

This week, I actually learnt that the road between Mombasa and Nairobi has started, and a large number of machines and trucks need to produce that highway—there’s much to be built there and that will require a lot of machines and trucks, going forward.

When do you anticipate autonomous driving being rolled out in South Africa?

It will be rolled out I’m sure,

It can be rolled out actually tomorrow if you have an enclosed environment, like a mine, where you have control over everything around the truck or you can predict what will happen around the truck.

So, it’s occurring in mines in Sweden. In other places, I know more pilots are coming this year and next year, and in a couple of years, I’m sure there will be demos there and pilots, in big scale, on the normal roads. They are probably four/five years in front of us, and then a lot of other things outside Volvo’s control needs to change as well.

But I’m sure if you build a road today, hypothetically between Joburg and Durban, instead of making a railway, you can build a road, which you have fences on and you can put trucks on, there could be autonomous trucks driving from Durban to Joburg tomorrow, every day.

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