MAN of the moment

Roberto Cortes, president and CEO of MAN Latin America, has done an exceptional job of leading the company from relative obscurity to the position of market leader in the Brazilian truck market.

He’s one of the most admired – and widely liked – individuals within the South American transport industry. CHARLEEN CLARKE touches base with Roberto Cortes, president and CEO of MAN Latin America.

In order to get the best out of people, it helps to be nice. This is something that Roberto Cortes has perfected. He is always so incredibly pleasant.

“Aha”, I hear you saying. “You’re a journalist. That’s why he’s nice to you …”

Not true. Chat to anyone at MAN Latin America and you will always hear the same story. One of the staff members even told me that he greets all the workers in the factory by name! (The man certainly does have an incredible memory; we have met three times and he always recalls exactly where and when our meetings took place.)

So it’s a fact that he’s nice and has a good memory. But where did he come from? Well, let’s start at the here and now: Cortes has been president of MAN Latin America since 2009. But he cut his teeth in the automotive industry in 1979. Since then, he has participated in the creation of Autolatina, a joint-venture between Ford and Volkswagen in Brazil and Argentina (in the mid-1980s); was business strategy executive manager at Ford headquarters in Detroit in the United States (from 1989 to 1990) and worked at Volkswagen in Germany (in 1994 he was appointed corporate controller of Volkswagen in South America).

In 1998 he assumed responsibility for transforming the brand’s truck and bus operation into a business unit with greater independence in decisions and strategies. In 2002 he was appointed executive vice-president of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles and chief executive officer of Volkswagen Trucks and Buses. In 2007 he was appointed president of Volkswagen Trucks and Buses, subsequently renamed MAN Latin America.

There is absolutely no doubt that he has done an exceptional job of leading the company from relative obscurity to the position of market leader in the Brazilian truck market (MAN Latin America has a share of more than 30%). Cortes has also pushed the boundaries in the export game – and today MAN Latin America is also the largest truck exporter in Brazil. This is no mean feat – the company had a mere 10% share just 10 years ago.

And Cortes says that this is just the beginning. “We see huge potential for growth for the future as well. The average truck is 18 to 19 years old in this country; the fleets have to be renewed,” he tells FOCUS. “With our integration into MAN – which has given us access to new products and over 250 years of experience – we are perfectly poised to capitalise on this future growth.”

He believes that growth is not going to be limited to any one sector. “We have 40 million new consumers in this country; they are all buying goods. Furthermore, the construction sector is booming,” he reveals.

MAN of the momentBut there are many other companies out there, which all want to capitalise on that growth. Why should MAN triumph? Cortes says there are a number of reasons for his confidence. “Firstly, we have the right products for the market – more you don’t need, less you don’t want. Secondly, we built a plant which is revolutionary in terms of cost-effectiveness. It also means that we can react fast. So we have the ideal combination in terms of products and the right production facility.

“Thirdly, there is our dealer network – it is the best in the country. Our fourth pillar of success is our expertise in the market. We have been here for 30 years; we know this market very well. The fifth pillar is what I call our ‘willingness to do’. We set out to achieve our objectives and we are highly motivated; there is no place for us – except number one,” he stresses.

Of course, given the success of the brand, the way forward is slightly more challenging. “Now it is very hard for us to gain another percentage share of the market; that is quite difficult,” Cortes notes with a grin.

But he is optimistic given the MAN product availability. “This is very good for us. In the past, we could not offer more than 272 kW (370 hp). Now we can compete in the 295 kW (400 hp)-plus market. That is a very important sector, as it accounts for 25% of commercial vehicle sales,” he reveals.

One needs to bear in mind that we’re talking about substantial total market. “The over 5 t market is now around 175 000 trucks and the bus market equates to 35 000 units. The export market is also substantial, at around 260 000 units,” Cortes tells FOCUS.

The availability of MAN product is clearly going to play a major role – and Cortes is keen to get cracking with the new range. “The MAN Latin America plant in Resende (a Brazilian town in the state of Rio de Janeiro)  is ready for the challenge of producing the Volkswagen Advantech and MAN lines; we can produce up to 82 000 trucks and buses per year on a three-shift-per-day basis. We used to own one million square metres of land in Resende; now we have acquired another 1,5 million m² in Porto Real (14 km from Resende) to house a logistics centre,” he reveals.

The MAN launch has been a long time coming. “Our customers have wanted MAN product since 2009, but we wanted to ensure that we were able to supply the right product for this market,” he explains.

As such, the company will sell the TGX. “We have no plans to introduce the smaller MANs; the Volkswagen products already serve this purpose well,” Cortes says. He is happy that the trucks will cope with Brazilian conditions – including the country’s notorious roads. “Only 12% of our roads are paved and, out of that 12%, 50% are in bad condition. This is a handicap for Brazil,” he notes.

On a positive note, Cortes says the import duties are a good thing. “The Chinese were benefitting from the strength of our currency. They were offering spot deals here at very low prices. The government was sensitive to this and imposed suitable measures. Local content to the value of 65% is an imperative; 30% duty is imposed on full imports and this has levelled the playing fields. If the Chinese want to come, they are welcome. But they need to establish a factory and dealer network first,” he stresses.

Looking to the future, Cortes is convinced that it looks “green”. “We started working on bio-diesel in 2003. We have a huge agricultural base in Brazil, which can supply enough food and energy. We were the first company to believe and invest in dual fuel technology in Brazil – first with pure bio-diesel (B100) and afterwards with natural gas. For the years to come, the betting is on hybrid technology,” he predicts. “Environmental protection is part of our DNA. We want green vehicles in our range all over the world.”

But the move to green is not without its challenges and contradictions. “The whole Euro-5 debate is an interesting one. The trucks on our roads are generally extremely old – and thus they will continue to pollute. There is no government incentive to scrap those old trucks – so what will Euro-5 actually achieve?” he asks.

That remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Cortes is determined to deliver the very best trucks and service to his customers. “When the new MAN vehicles are launched, the MAN Latin America authorised network will already be certified and equipped with all the necessary tools. The staff from all the dealers are being trained at our new training centre in São Bernardo do Campo (south of São Paulo). In total, more than 2 000 people will be trained, from teams of Brazilian dealers to importers from Latin America and Africa,” he concludes.

In other words, he is going to be nice to his customers. Very, very nice. Which is – after all – precisely what they deserve.

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