UD Trucks has emerged as a true regional force over the past decade. The company confidently launched the latest generation of its popular Croner and Quester models earlier this year and Mourad Hedna explains that the Japanese brand is preparing for further growth as the both the commercial vehicles industry and the fleet sector try to side-step worldwide disruption and rising costs.
Even as the industry faces challenges globally, the Middle East region remains an exciting market where the fundamentals look strong.
“We believe our sector will keep growing,” he begins. “As of today, we don’t see a real, competitive alternative to trucks. Regionally, some people argue that if you have rail, and so on, but I think up to now there is no real competitor flexibility wise, cost-wise and efficiency-wise as trucks.”
UD may have departed the Volvo Groups’ umbrella last year, but it is continuing to enjoy a formidable rise in the ranks in the region’s fleets. With new parent company Isuzu and its former Swedish owner agreeing to a 20-year strategic alliance partnership, it can remain a competitively priced range that combines European engineering knowhow where it matters – as with the excellent ESCOT transmission – and Japanese simplicity, robustness and reliability in hot conditions.
It even bounced back impressively from the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, to register a 30% increase in sales across the Middle East and North Africa market, including a 24% rise in its key largest market by volume, Saudi Arabia.
Despite this impressive performance, Hedna explains that UD has not been entirely immune to the same supply issues that have slowed order times across the industry.
“In the long term, the GDP growth looks strong and the investment into construction and logistics will continue. For sure, in the short term, the driver of the market has been Covid which has created big challenges for us in terms of meeting demand and a strain on supply,” he continues.
“During the peak of the crisis, no one knew for sure how will be the demand and whether people will continue buying trucks or not. The automotive industry has an advanced supply chain which is very complex and based on the just-in-time approach. And of course, what we saw with Covid and the restrictions that followed were the creation of big disturbances globally. Unfortunately, we are still there because even if you disturb just one element on a supply chain that is very complex, then you have uncertainty everywhere – and we are still
“in the middle of this uncertainty we don’t know yet when you will see a balance between supply and demand – or whether the high demand is sustainable or not. How to manoeuvre this uncertainty is the big equation that everyone is working on.”
While the automotive industry may be struggling to meet customer needs, fleet businesses
themselves have their own struggles to contend with such as rising fuel prices and inflation.
“You’re seeing inflation in raw materials, commodities and rising manufacturing and logistic costs. So the overall price of everything is going up. Fuel prices also starting to create big challenges for customers in the region because they used to enjoy low fuel prices,” notes Hedna. “in UAE, In just the last six months we have had a plus 56% rise in fuel.”
Hedna, who has always been a believer in going into field and listening to fleet owners, says that he has seen the knock-on effects of this pressure first-hand.
“Yesterday, I was talking to some customers in Fujairah and they said that the majority of their trucks are idle because it costs a lot to keep them running and they cannot negotiate higher contract prices,” he remarks, adding that total cost of ownership has become a higher priority than at any other time he can recall in the MENA region.
“More and more customers are looking at the bottom line and the purchase price. The emotional approach to decision making is less and less important. Customers are looking at the brand that can give them what they need.”
His words echo the famous mantra of UD’s founder Kenzo Adachi and his commitment to ensure that then Nissan Diesel was “building the trucks that the world needs today”. In many ways, the company finds itself at a point where a customer that has historically invested in one brand and stuck with it, is now prepared to see fleet acquisition as a question of making the right decision for their business rather than scoring prestige points among their peers.
“I don’t even think it is all about Covid,” he remarks. “People are looking for exactly what they need. Not more now. They’re asking questions about whether they need an over-specified option. Maybe 300 horsepower is good enough for me and I don’t need 500 horsepower?
“This didn’t used to be on the table, because, going some time back, people were promoting what was being used in other markets such as high horsepower, and so on. Which, again, was more about appealing to the emotional side.”
Ever since taking the reins of the Middle East, East and North Africa region in 2016, he has been determined that the company is, in his words, humble enough to sit with fleet customers and watch and learn how they run their operations. It is also an approach he says that now runs through the veins of its growing network of distributors in the region.
“I learnt that we need to listen more, stronger and deeper to our customers. It is a big mistake to come to them and believe that we know more than them and dictate to them which solutions they need and have to use. I don’t like that as when it doesn’t work, some turn around and say you didn’t listen to us, or even, you’re not smart enough,” he laments.
“But I have to be humble and say that these fleets or customers have been in the business for many years and very often they are successful, they must know something and we need to learn from them rather than dictating solutions that may be optimised somewhere else. I was talking to an oil and gas operator at the opening of our new Fujairah facility this week, and the first thing I said was, let me send a couple of people from my team to observe for a half-day, to see your operations, understand your challenges and needs . For me, the connection with the customer has to be really sincere.”
Each week, the UD team sits down to discuss how our customer trucks are performing in the field and discuss customer satisfaction. This way, feedback is taken in, and potential problems can be resolved rather than dismissed.
“We go through our customer list, one by one, truck by truck,” he reveals. “If there are issues, a customer will forgive you if he knows that you care.”
This process of listening and learning has been piled into the newly launched medium-duty Croner and its heavy-duty cousin the Quester. Both continue the legacy of engine, transmission and driveline development with Volvo Group, but UD was determined to grow
in the Middle East and show that it is a key player in these markets contributing to the prosperity and development of the region.. Introducing Euro 5 models into the market for the first time, Hedna tells T&FME that he has been pleased with the feedback so far.
“When we launched the Euro 5 products there were two main things we got back: the optimum driveability and the ease of using the ESCOT automatic transmission and the real time driving coaching,” he says.
“One other important feedback we got from customers, partners and key stakeholders is the professionalism and family spirit of the UD team.”
ESCOT allows automatic and manual shifting to adapt to payloads and improve fuel efficiency and eases driver operations, but during its own testing T&FME was particularly impressed by how easy the coaching display makes understanding your fuel efficiency at a time when every drop is counting for drivers.
As Hedna enthuses: “It’s fantastic, easy to use, and you can see the benefit.”
Sitting within the core Croner and Quester models are additions that could enhance fleet operations depending on the application. The first is UD’s 6×4 40T Quester (“It’s on par with a European construction truck. This truck is doing very well in the Middle East and Africa”) which was first introduced to heavy fleets in 2018 – alongside an 8x4R with hub reduction.
“We have also introduced heavy duty version of 64T with GCW 100 T for construction and long haul segment in UAE; which is by far the biggest segment in UAE.
It has ESCOT, 460 horsepower and 2,220 Nm flat torque, as well as the advanced smart coaching. We are just starting this journey, and this will be a very successful product because we are price competitive in the segment.”
In addition, for Saudi Arabia market, UD Trucks is pushing 4x2T designed to meet the needs of long and regional haul segment in Saudi Arabia combined with different service agreements offering, which is historically dominated by European premium brands. We have made entry into some customer fleets who never use to look beyond 2-3 specific brands.
UD Trucks is also doing very good with Quester 64R and 42T with 8 litre engine with 280 and 330 hp offering, what Hedna describes as most cost effective options for customer for less demanding HD applications where they need HD chassis but really don’t need very high hp engine.
“We are creating a new segment. We spent a lot of time on it, so we could return back to customers with something that wasn’t over-specified for their needs,” he says. “It’s perfect for some countries like Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait as the roads are flat and you don’t need to cross the Alpes or Pyrenees in your truck. It’s a heavy-duty truck that is doing the job perfectly, and you will see fuel that consumption is much better. And the purchase cost is more affordable.”
“Waste management is another segment where UD is clearly a key player in the region. With our experience cumulated in the last years and continuous products and services enhancements, we have an optimised value proposition with best Euro5 range for Medium duty and heavy duty for that segment.”
Turning to the future, the Isuzu partnership means that UD Trucks can begin to consider in the future the Light Duty offering in its line-up and realise its ambitions of being a full-range provider. UD Trucks is also working of new mobility options such as electrified, hydrogen fuel cell, biodiesel and hybrid vehicles. Hedna says that like elsewhere, adoption in the Middle East will be subject to how competitive these next generation options can be compared to their traditional rivals and how ease and implications of implementation for fleets.
“There could be some segments (that adopt faster than others), especially in some countries and some cities which may say you will not allow these to enter a city, if you are not running on electricity. There will be a lot of city requirements where everybody needs modern, sophisticated smart light and medium duty trucks.
“But, then if you are outside a city, you may have challenges with infrastructure and access to charging, and so on. Then, running on cleaner diesel will have to be an option. So, we are working on these different technologies internally and with different partners,” he comments.
“However, especially, when we talk about electric battery and hydrogen, it’s a big disruption, which means you are not just talking about be able to bring in one truck and having it tested in one in city. If you want really to think about this, it’s the full ecosystem that we need. This is beyond just the manufacturer. It’s the infrastructure, the charging, the availability and the price of the electricity and hydrogen, the source of electricity and Hydrogen that need to be green as well.”
He continues: “And then you have the batteries. Many don’t realise that if you want to have a truck, maybe 18-ton, then you are carrying 3t-4t in batteries too. In my view, in the short- to medium-term, I don’t think that there will be a big jump to these disruptions in the region that we talked about. Early adoption could be restricted to some very specific segments and it will be more smooth progress for a while, and then, of course, like any disruption when it comes, it could be very fast,” he says, adding that we could see a move more towards improved emissions trucks like Euro5 and Euro 6 acceleration and more likey more restrictions on the very old imported trucks. COP 27 in Egypt and COP 28 in UAE could be a catalyst for that.
With our conversation coming to a close, T&FME asks whether being able to draw on both ISUZU Group and Volvo Group, is a ‘best of all worlds’ situation for UD Trucks as it faces an exciting, if unpredictable future in the industry?
“Definitely,” he affirms. “There is a long term strategic alliance between Isuzu Group and Volvo Group. UD is enjoying the strong assets we built in the past with Volvo group and continue our growth journey in heavy duty. ISUZU Group is a fantastic automotive group with long expertise in automotive and it will provide a lot of opportunities for UD Growth as well. Light duty is also in the genes of ISUZU Motors and in the future light- and medium-duty will be very important because we will need even more last mile delivery services. Especially in this region.”
Concluding, Hedna adds: “The story for us here is that we are consistent. We have put an organisation in place, and we are listening to the market. We have fantastic collaboration with our partners based on trust and mutual support. We are staying close to our customers and whatever requirements change, every single time we are bringing a product or service according to the customer’s needs.”