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Mack Trucks VP thrives on change


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The Morning Call / December 5, 2015

Wade Watson describes himself as a fixer, a person who thrives on change and likes a lot of it.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that when Watson arrived in the area in May as the new vice president and general manager of Mack Trucks Lehigh Valley Operations, he had some questions about the iconic heavy-duty truck manufacturer's local presence.

Among his thoughts: What are the strengths of the Lehigh Valley compared with other areas? Does the local community support Mack? And should Mack expand in the area?

First, Watson said he found the company's 1,866 local employees are committed and skilled at building Mack trucks.

"That's not something that can easily be picked up and moved," Watson said.

Not as immediately obvious, Watson said, was support from the community. But soon after, Watson said, he found "there was an absolute desire and a willingness of the business community to embrace Mack Trucks."

And at a Nov. 11 Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. event, Watson made it clear that Mack is here to stay. At the event, Watson also announced some planned changes at Mack's 1 million-square-foot plant in Lower Macungie Township.

Those include expanding the building's south end by adding receiving docks and putting a new facade on the 40-year-old plant.

Watson, who originally wanted to be an architect, has helped bring about change since joining Volvo Group — Mack's parent company — in 2001. Before starting at Mack Trucks, Watson was the vice president of operations for Volvo Powertrain North America in Hagerstown, Md., bringing in $70 million in investments to the plant during his nearly five-year run in that position that started in 2010.

Watson, a 41-year-old Zionsville resident, spoke to The Morning Call last week in his Lower Macungie office, discussing everything from watching "Cars" with his 3-year-old son to where he thinks Mack has room to grow its business moving forward.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q. You started here in May. How's everything been going so far?

A. It'd been a long time since [my wife and I] had moved or taken this much change all at once. We lived in the last house we were in for seven years. It was a lot of change, taking a new job, a new house. We've been married for 21 years, and we have a 3-year-old at home, so that's also new for us, having a son. So it's been a lot of change, a lot to take in, but it's been really positive as far as a place to live.

It's a really great place to be. It seems like everyone we meet really recognizes the Lehigh Valley is something special and everything from parks to family restaurants to the Phantoms. A lot of great things to do around here.

Q. What are some of the first things that come to mind when you think of a Mack truck?

A. The first thing is a bulldog. Rugged. Tough. I'm a visual person, so automatically I'm looking at the grill, so I can see the grill of the Mack truck. It's an American icon.

I was watching "Cars" with my son the other day, and Mack is the truck that's pulling Lightning McQueen. Really, it's a source of pride for me to be part of a brand and an organization that has been part of the fabric of the United States for over 100 years.

Q. At the Lehigh Valley's Economic Development Corp's event Nov. 11, you made it clear that Mack is here to stay in the Lehigh Valley. When you got here in May, was that the case?

A. As a new leader, new executive, new manager, the first thing you have to do is kind of question everything and you put everything on the table and look at the overall picture of financial performance and expansion and growth and market conditions and all of that.

And, in doing that, you have to challenge everything: the location, the investment. Those questions were raised. Should we and to what magnitude could we expand? Is this a good place to do business comparatively? What are the strengths and the draw of this area compared to others?

Through all that — call it fact-checking or, for me, it was learning because I had to learn the operation and learn the performance of the group — it proved that No. 1, the workforce here, they are committed and skilled at building Mack trucks and that's not something that can easily be picked up and moved.

The thing that wasn't evident in that early fact-finding time frame was: How much does the community support having a manufacturer here? When I looked at the previous — my predecessors — what did they have as far as contacts with economic development or the state of Pennsylvania or elected officials and how did they work with the community on making sure that we were a viable competitor?

The list was pretty short, and I was surprised that for a business that had been present for so long, that there wasn't this really interwoven … that Mack was part of the fabric of the economic development community and part of the political community here.

So I had to question why did that happen or how did we end up like that. It didn't take long that I found that there was an absolute desire and a willingness of the business community to embrace Mack Trucks. But somehow, over time, we had kind of retracted a little bit and maybe we were dealing with our own internal issues. We've had a lot of changes over the years.

This is a very industrious region. It started with the local township going through economic development all the way to the state of Pennsylvania. What I've seen is a great desire to keep us exactly where we are, and that's very important for us to be competitive.

There are a lot of states out there that are wooing and trying to attract different plants or manufacturers. If you don't have that kind of relationship or that kind of embrace where the local community really wants you to grow and stay where you are and retain jobs and all that, then it can be an uphill battle when you need simple things or complex things.

We need permits to build. We need support from local authorities on what the facade of the building is going to look like. We need sometimes traffic control or road changes and all that kind of thing. And if we don't have that kind of support and relationship, it becomes very difficult. It became evident that we have that.

Q. Do you have plans to get Mack Trucks more involved in the community?

A. Something that I think is very important is for a company of our size, the interaction that we have with the community, both from a corporate social responsibility perspective and also just how are we perceived in the community at large. I think it's very important for us to demonstrate that, at Volvo Group and Mack Trucks, we are very focused on making sure that the community around us feels a positive impact of our business being in that community, whether it's from volunteerism or our employees and their interaction in what they do or it's fiscally with the taxes or the contributions we make in that way or corporate sponsorships to nonprofits.

This is an area that we could really increase our footprint and we have an intention of doing that. You'll start to see more people involved in the community — on boards or volunteer programs and sponsorships. You'll start to see more of a presence from us to make sure that people get the sense that Mack is here and that's a good thing and that we leave a positive imprint on the community around us.

Q. With Mack's two planned site improvements — adding receiving docks and a new facade — what's the status of those and what are they aimed at bolstering?

A. If I put them into those two greater buckets, one is the customer experience in the admin building, so the things that we're going to do on this front half and facing Alburtis Road. We have the civil engineering work, I would say, 90 percent complete on the first two phases. It's a four-phased project that we're going to do. We have some modified permits that we had to get through the local township because we changed the parking lot layout. We have a preliminary approval from the township that it all looks good, and that's a good first step.

So then we have some long lead-time items: steel, structure and some things that need to be ordered. We're in the process of getting those things ordered, so I would say we're in the early stages of beginning construction. This half of the building, I would expect in the first quarter of next year, will be vacated and under construction, where we're sitting now. I expect that probably through 2016 that we should get the first half of this part of the work done.

Inside the plant, increasing the dock capacity and changing the flow of material to go instead of from the ends, from the sides. And change the internal flows. We're starting the first internal movements for that in January and I hope that by the end of 2017, that's all complete. The majority of the heavy lifting — the planning, what do we want to do and why do we want to do it — that part is done and we're beginning to get into execution phase.

Q. Heavy-duty truck production is expected to peak this year, but where do you think Mack can grow its business moving forward?

A. There's a lot of potential in long haul and I think we have a very competitive truck in long haul and it's a matter of making sure that our customers view us that way and our dealers view us that way. That we have great fuel economy, a very safe vehicle. It's connected with telematics. We have state-of-the-art technology. I believe that we deserve a bigger piece of that market, and I think that will come.

The market as a whole, when the energy sector comes back — and it will — I think that if you look at some of the market conditions driving that with oil prices and those kinds of things, we attract the energy sector and the housing starts and a few other things, but I think those things will come back and pose some opportunities for us.

Q. For you personally, are you here for the long haul?

A. We moved here, so that was a big step. I don't have any plans beyond that, other than we settled in Zionsville. We love our house. We put a pool in, which you can't get that money back. We have to use that for a number of years in order to get some kind of a payback. I think, for my expectations, I could see us staying here for quite some time.

There's lots of work to do here, and there's lots of fun stuff to do in the area.

.

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He basically said nothing as far as new competative products going forward. I find it odd that he said that Mack deserves a larger share of the maket. I would think that you would have to earn that market share by being more competative than the next guy. Maybee his shirt says it all. Hope I am wrong.

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the first thing they could do is get rid of the union and get some people that give a shit about the truck that they let leave the factory and go to the custamer

That's non-sense. The build quality has gone up in recent years and the personnel take pride in a good product. I've worked on all the major brands and Mack still makes quality trucks. Before it gets to the customer it's should get PDI at the dealership.

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That's non-sense. The build quality has gone up in recent years and the personnel take pride in a good product. I've worked on all the major brands and Mack still makes quality trucks. Before it gets to the customer it's should get PDI at the dealership.

With all due respect (we're friends), I still see rust from bumper to taillamps on all the new Mack trucks at the dealers. A PDI can't correct the situation that the chassis was not primed before it was "cheaply) painted.

And the newer trucks are frequently in the shop, translating to well over 75 percent of their activity being warranty repairs.

Today's Mack is not the product of 20 years ago. It has evolved into a cheap disposable truck.

This all goes back to an old topic............http://www.bigmacktrucks.com/index.php?/topic/2094-is-volvo-good-or-bad-for-mack-trucks/page-8

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I understand moving forward. What makes me up set is they aren't supporting the customers that have been there when times weren't so good for Mack.

But they sure will talk about the heritage and how great the Mack name is.

Since acquiring Mack Trucks, Volvo has continually forgotten how they got to the party.

The Mack customer base was loyal, unlike ordinary customers which switched brands like socks as they purchased that day's lowest price truck.

Volvo has been entirely focused on melding Mack into the Volvo empire (changing the Mack truck into a superior Volvo). Unlike Renault, Volvo never had any interest in understanding and appreciating Mack Trucks for what it was. To Volvo, buying Mack was but a means to an end.

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I don't know a lot about the trucking industry outside construction (I'm in concrete), but it appears to me that virtually all trucks made today are of lower quality than even 25 years ago. Sure, they may be more powerful and more comfortable, but they don't seem to be built to as high a standard as they used to be. Mack, unfortunately, appears to be "just another truck" instead of being head and shoulders better than the competition like they were 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Mack is iconic. It is what America used to be. It used to be what America used to be.

I don't know if it will be possible to go back to that business model, but we can always hope.

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With all due respect (we're friends), I still see rust from bumper to taillamps on all the new Mack trucks at the dealers. A PDI can't correct the situation that the chassis was not primed before it was "cheaply) painted.

And the newer trucks are frequently in the shop, translating to well over 75 percent of their activity being warranty repairs.

Today's Mack is not the product of 20 years ago. It has evolved into a cheap disposable truck.

This all goes back to an old topic............http://www.bigmacktrucks.com/index.php?/topic/2094-is-volvo-good-or-bad-for-mack-trucks/page-8

Don't get me wrong the new Macks aren't what they were 20 years ago let alone 14 years ago prior to Volvo. There is some product improvement in certain aspects on the newer trucks. There are pros and cons from before compared to now. Longevity has gone done but so has other brands, unfortunately, that's the market now. My point was don't blame the workers for the design flaws. In a sea of throwaways (ie Daimler, Navistar, Paccar,etc) Macks (gold bulldog spec) are better quality and easier to maintain. Freightliner materials are very cheaply produced. International are very badly designed for servicing. Peterbilt/KW have gone down in quality. The caveat with Mack is the issues with cups and injectors and some aftertreatment systems faults. From what I've heard, those issues are suppose to be resolved. Mack isn't what is used to be, but neither are the rest. I would hope with this new marketing campaign by Mack some customer attention comes back into play.

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