Isuzu: From the ground up

By: Steve Brooks


In a world of few certainties, Isuzu’s leadership of the Australian truck market is probably as close as it gets to ‘a sure thing’. But now, with the brand notching 30 consecutive years at the top, the street smart executive who moulded much of Isuzu’s performance for half those years has retirement high on the agenda. We look back on Phil Taylor’s stellar career with a brand that makes an art form of staying on top

Isuzu: From the ground up
Phil Taylor

 

In any discipline, any endeavour, any industry, anywhere, 30 years at the top of the tree in a fiercely competitive field is a big deal. Indeed, it doesn’t come much bigger!

And there are perhaps few who understand the scale of the achievement better than Isuzu Australia director and chief executive officer Phil Taylor.

Even so, he doesn’t spruik it. In fact, he doesn’t even mention Isuzu Australia’s latest milestone unless someone brings it up in conversation or it happens to suit the moment and the audience.

As for expressions of personal pride or his role in the seemingly endless ascension of the brand, they’re well contained by a natural disdain for hubris and bluster. 

"Take nothing for granted," he says with blunt conviction.

What’s more, and even with retirement now hovering high on the horizon, you get the distinct impression Taylor would rather talk about tomorrow with all its challenges and opportunities than beat the drums of current acclaim.

Besides, it’s a beat many of us have heard before. Loudest, perhaps, at the close of 2008, after Isuzu had officially notched 20 consecutive years of market leadership and didn’t hesitate to celebrate the milestone in fine fashion following a bitter battle with arch rival Hino.

Back then, Taylor had been director and chief operating officer at Isuzu Australia for almost four years, and as right-hand man to former president and managing director Yuki Murata, they formed one of the most effective, yet decidedly disparate, executive combinations in the business.

Taylor, the sharp, articulate, tenaciously competitive and commercially savvy salesman who’d come to Australia from England as a teenager, before wandering into the workforce armed with little more than guile and grit.

Murata, on the other hand, was the epitome of the quiet achiever. Well-educated, well-travelled, shrewd, with an understanding of Western ways that stood in stark contrast to the image of the thin, unassuming, softly spoken Japanese man.


Test drive: Isuzu N Series just got better. Read more, here


On the surface, they were the odd couple, appearing to share little more than the same employer and the same year of birth.

Scratch a tad deeper, though, and the formidable tacticians were soon stepping out in unison, plotting and planning for an even more dynamic and assured future. It was a potent pairing built on mutual respect, which made the most of the platform forged by Yuki Murata’s similarly insightful and Western-wise predecessor, Shin Hoshino.

It was, however, Murata’s creation in 2005 of the chief operating officer’s role, arming his principal protagonist with significantly greater corporate clout, which laid the foundation for even closer ties – particularly on product development – between Japan and an Australian operation, which at that time was one of few jewels in the Isuzu bank. 

In the same year, and in line with events in Japan, Yuki Murata also oversaw the break of the Australian operation from its long – and some might say, restrictive – association with General Motors.

From here on, the company that went from Isuzu-General Motors to Isuzu Australia Ltd was on a roll like never before, buoyed by the rapid rise of its Japanese parent from years of economic turmoil.  

Yet while most pundits saw Isuzu Australia’s 20-year milestone as a certainty, neither Murata nor Taylor were quite so ebullient in their confidence.

In a 2009 interview with both men, each was adamant that nothing could be assumed in a business as ruthlessly competitive as the Australian truck market.

"I don’t believe it was ever a given," Taylor said soon after achieving 20 consecutive years of market leadership, conceding that former Hino front-man Roger Hall had done just about everything, and anything, to knock Isuzu off the perch.

"He came close," Taylor exclaimed.

"Too close!"

Somewhat surprisingly, though, both Murata and Taylor were considerably more upbeat on the prospect of reaching 25 years of market leadership.

"My ultimate intention is to stay in this country," Yuki said in early 2009, citing the 25th milestone as the next goal, but fully aware that his tenure at the head of Isuzu Australia was firmly in the hands of others.

Likewise, and with 20 years in the bag, it was a brutally positive Phil Taylor who commented, "Twenty-five years is the objective and quite frankly, with the product we’ve got, the people we’ve got, and the dealers we’ve got, I’m more bullish about 25 years than I was about achieving 20 years."

At that point, no one dared look at the 30-year mark, or dared talk about it. Still, given the company’s ability to keep its fiercest competitors at bay with models targeting almost every niche in the light and medium-duty markets particularly, some commentators (including this one) were even then asserting the likelihood of Isuzu remaining on top for decades to come.

Anyway, while Yuki would ultimately become the longest serving Japanese leader of Isuzu Australia and continued to make no secret of a desire to lead the company to its 25th year of market domination, Japan had other plans for its well-credentialed achiever. After eight years

at the Australian helm and with a quarter century of market domination just a year away, Yuki Murata in 2012 was transferred to the executive echelons of Europe, before eventually retiring back to Japan.

Taylor, however, was going nowhere. Or at least not until he decided it was time to swap the suit and tie for jeans and T-shirt. For now, he’s keeping a retirement date firmly under wraps, confirming only that it’s getting closer by the day.

For my money, he’ll swap the brogues for boat shoes sometime in the first half of this year.

As for a replacement, the writing has been on the wall for a few years that director and former sales and marketing chief Andrew Harbison is the man destined to be Taylor’s successor.

However, it wasn’t until July 2018, when current managing director Hiroko Yaguchi announced Taylor’s hoisting to the role of chief executive officer, with Harbison promoted to director and chief operating officer, that the cards for the future structure of Isuzu Australia started falling into place.

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THEN AND NOW

Isuzu’s 25th year of market domination certainly rolled around fast and few industry watchers doubted that, barring corporate calamity, 30 years would follow suit with similar certainty. And so it has!

Indeed, Isuzu’s strength has never been greater. As this report was being written in the last weeks of 2018, it appeared inevitable that Isuzu would for the first time deliver 10,000 units in one year.

For the record, around 180,000 Isuzu trucks have called Australia ‘home’ over the past 30 years.

There have, of course, been changes, notably a couple of big ones over the last five years, including a change of address in the move from a nondescript head office in Port Melbourne to a vast new facility in Melbourne’s sprawling western outskirts in Truganina.

The other great change has been Isuzu’s march up the heavy-duty ladder. In fact, while light and medium-duty categories continue to be the core of the brand’s business, Taylor admits growth in the heavy end has been especially satisfying.

He has good reason to be pleased. Isuzu has worked its way to number three in the heavy-duty category, with around 13 per cent of the market, thanks in large part to the exceptional success in recent years of six-wheeler and eight-wheeler models primarily designed and built for the Australian market. 

Taylor admits development of the models, particularly the eight-wheeler and its 10-wheeler offspring, which, among a wide range of workloads, have successfully targeted concrete agitator applications, was not without some pressure from Japan.

During a recent interview in Melbourne, for example, he said Japan’s agreement to develop a new range of heavy-duty rigids specifically for Australia also came with definite sales objectives.

"Japan was happy to develop, but we were under no illusions we had to deliver good results,"

Taylor grinned. It’s a grin that grows considerably as he explains that sales have more than tripled initial projections.

Heavy-duty growth has, however, been high on the Isuzu agenda for a long time and it would be naïve in the extreme to think the brand’s ambitions start and finish with the current crop of models.

At the end of 2013, for instance, with 25 years of market leadership fresh on the mantle, Isuzu held around eight per cent of the heavy-duty business.

By comparison, light and medium-duty dominance was running full steam ahead with seemingly unassailable leads in both categories, much as they are today. It stood to reason that the greatest scope for growth was in the heavy sector.

Yet despite the obvious changes over the past five years, Taylor’s assessment of the company’s future at the end of 2013 is almost a carbon copy of what it is today. 

"Getting to 25 years certainly hasn’t been as stressful as the 20 years mark," he remarked at the close of 2013.

"Still, achieving 25 years of market leadership means a great deal to everyone involved with Isuzu, here and in Japan.

"It’s an enviable record, for sure, but most of all it says a lot about the people who work here now and those who have worked here over the years, and about the customers and dealers who buy and sell the trucks.

"When it’s all boiled down, it’s the customers who put the numbers on the board and I don’t want anyone in this company to forget that."

That said, "I think it will be a very long time before anyone else will achieve anything like it in our market."

No question, the same comments still apply.

Likewise, on the likelihood of Isuzu still being at the top for another decade and more, a forthright Phil Taylor said, "Yes, I firmly believe that because the focus that sees us at the top now will still be the focus in 10 years. The culture is intact."

Looking even deeper into the crystal ball on the question of whether Isuzu will reach half a century at the top of one of the world’s most demanding and competitive markets, he was a tad less adamant, but nonetheless confident.

"The things that built the leadership are the things that will keep the leadership," he said.

"Of course, anything could happen between now and then. Something like a corporate takeover would have a huge influence. All things considered though, it’s entirely possible that Isuzu will still be leading the Australian market in another 25 years because the fundamentals are firmly in place.

"We know what it takes to lead the market, and to stay in the lead."

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HIGH HOPES

With well over 40 years in the truck industry, a serious Phil Taylor admits his early days were tough but enduring, a great learning curve, selling new and used trucks to hard-nosed operators of diverse means and more often than not, demanding dispositions.

It was, however, a grounding in the raw fundamentals of the truck business which would remain steadfast along every step of the corporate corridor; a step that started in 1991 when he joined Isuzu-General Motors as a Brisbane-based fleet manager before moving up to Queensland zone manager.

Obviously, he must have done most things well because the new century saw him ensconced in the Melbourne head office, responsible for sales and marketing. The rest, as they say, is history.

Yet there have been times when even the perceptive Taylor has been caught completely surprised and unawares. Never more than one particular event during his early days in Melbourne.

His boss back then was George Beattie, the man who had offered him the move to head office and still stands tall in Taylor’s regard. Even so, George invariably had an ambitious agenda and wasn’t shy about expressing a view, sometimes as surprising to his own people as anyone else.

So, naïvely excited by a batch of new, yet somewhat lacklustre, heavy-duty C-series and Giga models (George was a GM man rather than a truck man) at a press drive day, Beattie boldly announced that it wouldn’t be long before Isuzu would add heavy-duty market leadership to its domination of light and medium-duty categories.

If the press was caught on the hop by George’s statement, their surprise was nothing compared to the drop-jaw expression on Phil Taylor’s face.

Funny thing, though, it is today a candidly optimistic Taylor who says George Beattie’s prophesy may yet come true. Sure, it may come several decades after his rash outburst, but Isuzu’s potential to challenge for leadership of the heavy-duty class is nowadays more credible than ever before.

In fact, if plans now being developed for a major push into other areas of the heavy-duty arena come to fruition, and providing Australian engineers and product planners are front and centre during development, Isuzu may well end up with the firepower to deliver what has never delivered before… a range of efficient, technically advanced trucks for prime mover and truck ‘n’ dog applications.

As we reported in our previous issue, the platform for this heavy-duty expansion was presented a few months back with the announcement of a product sharing strategy between Isuzu and engine specialist Cummins. It’s an agreement that provides something outside the square of traditional Japanese heavy-duty hardware and as we speculated, provides the basis for Isuzu to become "…a serious challenger to the continental brands and subsequently gain the numbers to claw its way past the market might of Kenworth and Volvo".

Taylor agrees, the potential for Isuzu Australia is huge, building on the solid base created by the success of current six-wheeler and eight-wheeler models. However, he’s also a hard-nosed realist with open admiration for the market leaders and totally aware that pushing past Volvo or Kenworth on the heavy-duty ladder is a massive goal.

"We should never fool ourselves about this because the current number one and number two are there for a reason. We will have to earn our stripes with the right spec, the right fuel, the right tare, and the right creature comforts," he remarked.

Still, it will also be a massive achievement if it all comes together. Consequently, the prospect of Japan’s much improved Giga cab making an appearance with a livewire Cummins 12- or 13-litre engine coupled to a high-tech Eaton or ZF 12-speed automated transmission, puts a broad smile on the dial of the man who genuinely believes heavy-duty ascendancy is a real possibility rather than an ambitious pipedream.

After all, did anyone REALLY expect Isuzu to ever get to number three on the heavy-duty ladder, well ahead of the likes of Mack, Mercedes-Benz, Scania, Iveco and Freightliner?

Admittedly, with retirement now edging close, Taylor won’t be calling the shots when this charge into the heavy-duty heights eventually kicks off. By his own admission, he will have been out of the picture for "maybe a few years" before it actually happens.

Will that cause a pang of regret? Quiet for a moment, he says: "No!" Satisfaction, he asserts,

will come from simply, knowing that he was a driving force in Isuzu’s push to heavy-duty supremacy and, more importantly, keeping the business on the boil right up to the 30-year milestone and beyond.

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IS THERE A LEGACY?

It seemed a question he hadn’t closely considered. In a corporate sense, he’s strong-willed, calculating and fiercely competitive. Yet personally, there’s more than a hint of humility and what appears to be genuine contempt for conceit in any form.  

So, if there is a legacy, it was perhaps best exposed during a one-on-one meeting just a few weeks before Christmas.

Like, on the threat of arrogance sliding into a company and its people after so many years at the top?

"If my desire to get things done is perceived as arrogant, then so be it. But I hope not and, honestly, I don’t believe so.

"From a company point of view, we’ve always tried to be humble (and) never want to be seen as arrogant. It does you no good."

It is, in fact, an adamant Taylor who rates humility a far finer quality, both personally and professionally.

Predictably, confidence in the future is unequivocal. "Absolutely, I’m very confident in the future and the structures we have in place," he says with total conviction.

"We were on the right road before I took over in Melbourne and I believe we’re still on the right road today but make no mistake, nobody is bigger than the firm.

I know I’m not.

"Our credentials are good and we’ve been grooming from within to promote the right people. I know my successor will do a great job and the firm will go on to bigger, greater things in the future. I have no doubt about that."

He is, however, quick to concede that the truck industry generally has "a very small pool of good talent to choose from".

Thoughtful for a moment, an emphatic Phil Taylor continued, "For that reason, I’m a big believer in growing your own talent from within. We operate in a culturally diverse industry with truck suppliers from Europe, the US and Japan all having different cultures in their ways of doing business."

Done properly, growing from within creates great loyalty and brings out the best in people, he asserts.

In most respects, Phil Taylor is perhaps his own example of that belief.

As for proud moments in what can only be viewed as a hugely successful career, his response was a mix of gratitude and satisfaction. "I think the real pride comes from people having the trust to put me in a national role and then to be made a director.

"I knew I could make a difference and I believe I have made a difference.

"Besides, I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it."

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