Shaun Skinner joined American Isuzu Motors in June 1987 and moved to ICTA in 2002. In April 2016, he was named the very first American president of Isuzu Commercial Truck of America (ICTA).
Work Truck caught up with Skinner to touch base on how the past three years went and his outlook on the future. Here’s an excerpt from our interview:
WT: How has your experience been so far as the first American president of ICTA?
SKINNER: It’s been excellent in many ways. In some ways, it feels like a bit of an extension from what I was doing in my previous role. But, since it really was the first time in our company’s history the president was from the U.S. and not from Japan, I think it was a big step forward for us as a company for more localized autonomy or control of our own market.
I think our parent company recognized the need to have local managers drive change in their own markets and not always look to the parent company, Isuzu Motors Limited, to make decisions for the overseas markets.
Understanding that local management would have better ideas on what was needed has allowed the U.S. organization to be more focused on our dealers and our customers and their needs in both the short- and long-term.
While it's been great personally, for the company, it has allowed us to be more focused on what goes on in our markets.
Also, from a personal note, having a strong market for the past several years and a great dealer network has really helped it be more enjoyable, too, because having those tailwinds has been very nice.
WT: How has your role changed and evolved since your promotion three years ago?
SKINNER: Now we’re being asked to push for more of what we, meaning the U.S. management, feel is needed in and for the market. As a byproduct of that, I think the most significant change in my role is how far out to the future I am involved in and planning for.
For example, I now find myself involved in discussions about issues that are not only important today but can take us out to 2027 and beyond.
While that is fun, it is at the same time intimidating. You don’t know exactly what the market is going to be like. And, again, you’re making decisions that could have a broad impact on not only the company but the individuals who make up the company.
With our business growing, there are more moving pieces. I find myself more engaged in the long-term strategic planning, not that I don’t worry as much about what’s happening today, I just don’t have as much time to be as directly involved in it.
WT: What are some challenges you didn’t expect in your current role?
SKINNER: I’ve had to rely a lot more on everyone around me. We have a great team here who does a fantastic job of managing our business. Maybe this should have happened a long time ago, but I find myself becoming a little less involved in the day-to-day stuff and relying a lot on the people and management team here to make a lot more of the day-to-day decisions.
When the market took a bad turn really in the 2009-2010 time frame, I was probably involved in just about every aspect because our organization was smaller. You want to be involved in everything. Well, our sales have grown. The past four years have been record years for us.
When you’re more focused on some of the longer-term strategic initiatives, you don’t have time to be as engaged in everything and you need to rely on the people around you.
If you look at the future and how we look at the business and the challenges that you want to kind of qualify or quantify, it does require a different way of looking at things.
We like to compare ourselves to a family business. While we’re large in some manner, we’re not so large that we shouldn’t communicate well with the dealers. We’re very accessible to the dealers and our people in the field.
I think sometimes I feel like I’ve lost a little bit of that accessibility, and that to me is a bit of a challenge. From the way we operate, that’s always been important to me.
And it begs the question, how do you manage your time better?
WT: How much interaction do you have with Japan?
SKINNER: Typically, I travel to Japan about three to four times a year, or an as needed basis. I love going there. Japan has a great culture. Our parent company, Isuzu Motors Limited, is very supportive to the North American market.
Most of my interaction with Japan is typically done through our team members here (who speak much better Japanese than I do). We rely on them to navigate a lot of the discussions with our parent company, but we still do have an executive management team of expats here to help us maintain a high level of communication with the team in Japan.
I never want to lose that level of open communication with our parent company. They may have priorities that are slight adjustments that we wouldn’t pick up on if there wasn’t constant communication.
Having a management team here that communicates a lot with what's going on in Japan and clearly understands the culture of our company, helps guide the U.S. management team.
We have a lot of discussions and meetings to clarify our path for the future. Through these meetings, I have been able to better understand the subtle market shifts and the priorities of Isuzu Motors Limited. We are supporting their priorities as a distributor and we want to be sure that we are synced up with them on most if not all issues.
While we’re trying to be a little bit more autonomous, you can never completely surrender that relationship, nor would I ever want to. You must keep that as strong as possible because that drives a tremendous amount of what we do, and it drives a tremendous amount of our success longer term also.
WT: Can you discuss Isuzu’s growth over the past three years?
SKINNER: I’m going to throw you a curveball and go for the last four years, which were all record years for us. Our run of record years really started in 2015. When you look back to when we started with the Isuzu brand in 1984 in the U.S., the previous record volume year was in the late 1990s.
But in 2015, we set an all-time Isuzu brand record in the U.S. and Canada. And then subsequently in ‘16, we beat ‘15. In ‘17, we beat ‘16, and in ‘18, we beat ‘17.
Additionally, we’ve established part sales records. That means our dealer service and parts business is also at record levels, which are essential parts of their businesses.
We’ve looked at sales as being a critical factor, but we also look at the value of the brand. The value to the dealer is driven by an overall package. It just isn’t how many trucks they sell. It’s how many do they have returning for service and parts.
With the addition of our gas truck all our products now have an oil change program for the first two years of ownership. This helps the customer and gets them to return to the dealership more regularly.
We’ve done a lot to try and drive the customers back to the dealership to not only do a better job of ensuring a better level of customer experience but also allowing the dealer to create a stronger relationship with that customer, so they continue to return to the dealership over time.
In my opinion, by having record sales in volume, record sales in parts, and programs that are built for the long-term to drive those customers back, I’d say we’ve done an outstanding job over the past several years of growing the value of the brand.
It can't be just the dealers doing a great job, and it can't be just us offering a great product and great programs. We've got to create great programs, but we also have to have a great dealer network to get solid results.
We work hard to give them the best programs possible but also work with them to make sure that we give them the tools to execute well. And that's important to us.
WT: How has FTR specifically benefited and helped Isuzu grow, especially in the medium-duty truck market?
SKINNER: Having the FTR has really helped us as a company, and our dealers, expand the product line up into the Class 6 market for the first time in about eight to nine years.
We believe this is an important move for us long-term. As you look at our customer base, if you had a customer that was driving one of our N-Series and they decided they wanted to make a move to a Class 6 truck, we didn’t have anything to move them into.
It’s allowed us to start to develop a broader mix of product. So, as our dealers’ needs, and more importantly, our customer needs start to shift, we have something for them to move into and they don’t have to go outside of the brand.
WT: Can you share any goals you had and how they’ve been accomplished over the past few years?
SKINNER: I just didn’t want to screw things up since we were already doing very well when I was put into this position. We were already going at a good pace, and the previous year was a record year.
All kidding aside on that though, when you boil it down, my most important goal was looking at the future and really trying to ensure that we grew our team for the future.
There are a lot of people in our industry that are growing older and retiring, and there’s a lot of industries that are probably ‘sexier’ than the commercial truck business.
Trying to accumulate a team to replace the people that are leaving and find young people that really want to grow in an organization like this was critical.
One of our strongest attributes has been our organization, the team that we have. The passion they have for the business, how well they take care of the customer, how well they take care of the dealer, and the culture that we've built around that, kind of this family atmosphere.
We’ve always believed that we want to be the path of least resistance. We want to be the easiest OEM to do business with. We want to care about every truck deal because every customer counts.
So, as you have people retire, trying to replace people that come with that passion, but also an understanding of the business, is difficult. Trying to adapt the organization as times change is hard, too.
Even the way we advertise is very different than we used to. People want a lot more of the immediate type of stuff.
Creating the organization that’s in place to do that, not only from a cultural fit but also a skill set fit, to me, is crucial.
One of the things I’m really proud of that we have done to grow for the future is we’ve created a position within each of our regions and we’re bringing younger people in that we’re hiring, for the most part, right out of college.
We know the return on investment in them is going to be quite small in their first year on the job, but they get to learn the culture of the company.
They get to learn the business, and we create what I like to call bench strength. So, when the time comes that we’re looking to move somebody up into a position that may be more directly engaged with customers, more directly engaged with the dealers, they’ve learned a lot about the culture of our company, and they’ve learned a lot about how the medium-duty business works — and they are far better prepared to jump into a job with bigger responsibilities.
WT: How has the market changed over the past four years?
SKINNER: I think the pace of change is the biggest thing that I’ve noticed. As technology is becoming a bigger part of our industry, the pace of change seems to speed up, and I really don’t see it slowing down.
Similarly, I think the customers’ desire to tap into these new technologies, such as electric, has changed. A lot of people ask about that. They want to better understand those technologies and how they can benefit from it. Everybody expects to be able to move super fast. And sometimes when you’re offering a mass-produced product like this, one that requires a lot of understanding and quality built into it, you can’t always keep pace with what the customer’s wishes are.
They want to try it out. They want to have it in a small volume. But how do you keep up with that, and how do you continue to add the technology to your vehicles at a pace that meets customer expectations or the market expectations? I would say that to me is the biggest change, and I expect that will continue to be the biggest change in the foreseeable future.
WT: Do you see any other changes occurring in the market over the next few years?
SKINNER: The industry is going to evolve in an increasingly fast pace that technology will play a part of. Whether it will be the technology that’s built into the trucks to meet emission standards, which to some degree is maybe blind to the customers, or it’s brand new propulsion systems like EVs.
If we use that kind of as the foundation I think it may not be as much of a change but more of an evolution.
The dealers and the OEMs need to work together collectively to ensure the brand experience meets or exceeds — and hopefully exceeds — the customers’ expectations. As this technology gets built and engineered into these vehicles, I believe that over time there’s going to be less distinction between hardware factors on vehicles because there will be a lot of technology driven by suppliers.
There will be a lot of commonization of some of that, and I think it’s going to become more about the brand experience which requires OEMs and dealers to work together effectively.
WT: What’s currently the strongest regional market for your Isuzu products?
SKINNER: The Northeast continues to be a strong market for us. If you look at it, it makes a great deal of sense. Number one, there’s just a lot of people there. Also, because it’s densely populated means there’s just organically a lot more people to sell to.
And, our truck fits well in urban areas. You’ve got the great visibility with the cab forward. You’ve got the maneuverability. You can put a larger box and take up a smaller footprint.
If you look at other markets, we have a very strong market in the southeast. But in some cases, it's a little bit different. We do a lot in the landscape, pest control, etc. Our Crew Cab works very well for the landscape companies that go out on job sites, and they're taking multiple people.
WT: Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
SKINNER: First, if you’ve read all the way to the end of this interview, thank you very much for having enough interest in me to get through to this. Second, I would want to convey to Work Truck readers that I am very bullish on the future of medium-duty trucks and I think those in our business and our industry should be excited for the future also.
If you look at the growth of the economy, the diversity of the medium-duty truck segment, the growth in urban areas, and the effects of this ecommerce movement, the final mile, I think they will all play a huge role in the growth of the medium-duty market as we look to the future. Be ready for it.