FAN’s Caroline Falls talked with Raj Bajaj, vice president of Webfleet Solutions International, about the acquisition of Webfleet by Bridgestone, the services the companies are bringing to the transport and fleet sectors, and some of the future trends and challenges the industry is facing. This is an edited and condensed transcript of the recorded interview, also published as a podcast.
Welcome Raj. It took quite a while to set up this interview. But here we are together on Google meet. And I’m looking forward to what you have to say. I’m in my kitchen with noisy late afternoon traffic in Sydney. What about you? Where are you?
Thank you, Caroline. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. I am actually enjoying myself in Amsterdam. This is where our headquarters are.
Firstly let’s talk about Bridgestone’s tie-up with Webfleet. Tell us a bit about Webfleet’s history and why it was a desirable acquisition for Bridgestone.
Webfleet has been in what we call the data business 21 years. We were part of TomTom telematics and during the period of early 2000s right up until 2016-18, we had a very high growth rate and became the undisputed leader in Europe in the fleet management space. And during this time we also acquired a few companies and our growth rates and our leadership attracted Bridgestone which was then looking to acquire a software company to enable its journey to become a digital solutions player — moving from being a tyre company to a full mobility solutions company. Webfleet, in their view, was an ideal addition to enable this journey.
Can you tell us what the two companies — Webfleet and Bridgestone — are planning to do together? Maybe you can tell us about combining things like research and development or any innovations that are in the pipeline that sit in the mobility solutions sector?
If you look at the mission statements and the vision statements of Bridgestone, one thing which really would come up very strongly is this plan and desire to be a full mobility solutions provider by adding more value to our customers and bringing them the right solutions for the present and for the future. Now, as we know Bridgestone is a leader in the tyre space. They have a very deep knowledge of asset management; they have a very deep knowledge of the tyre models. The moment of truth is that the tyre is the only component between the car and the road and it is also a big safety component. So, combining all the knowledge which comes from being the leader in that space, and the knowledge that Webfleet brings of complete fleet, what we are jointly able to do is become a full vehicle fleet management solution provider which will help our customers manage their their journeys, driver behaviours in the fleet, safety components. For example, if you look at the tyre, there are temperature monitoring systems and tyre pressure monitoring systems — how do they combine and integrate with the fleet management system? So, bringing Bridgestone and Webfleet together will actually contribute to an enhanced experience of the client by utilising these solutions and enhancing their own businesses and providing more value to their own customers.
Let’s look now at some of the issues and challenges that are affecting the industry: things like chip shortages. How is that affecting the automotive industry? How is it affecting your company?
I think the chip shortages became quite an issue and I guess that was one of the knock-on effects of the Covid19. As you know a lot of the manufacturing plants were closed because of the pandemic and that had a roll-on effect. If you look at the whole automotive ecosystem now, cars are becoming like computer systems on wheels really. They have these multiple electronic equipments inside them, whether for in-vehicle infotainment or dashboard or for navigation — a lot of that is controlled through chips. So, the chips are one of the great necessities for rolling out the vehicles. So, there has been an impact in terms of delay that this has caused for the global automotive market. It has not impacted us directly because we are not in that business but it obviously would have a knock-on effect. But, we do not see strong direct impact or negativity in our overall business. As you can see, in the last year, the logistics business has actually grown. Logistics could be last mile, it could be e-commerce, it could be deliveries for vaccines. So the fleet business in itself has not become directly impacted; automotive companies have been impacted by this. But, I think, a lot of that is now getting resolved because the production lines are coming back. And, I think, as the economy opens up, we will see less and less impact of that on the global market.
I guess fleets are going to have to hang on to vehicles for longer than what they might have otherwise. And also, I was just wondering if it was serious enough these delays could actually ruin carmakers or associated automotive industry businesses.
You know, you’ll be surprised how well the automotive industry has learned to cope with adversities. I mean, in the last year, of course, the demand suddenly went down even for cars. So, even though at one end, they were having production issues because of the non availability of the chips, etc. But then also, because of the lockdowns across all the globe, there was less demand, and including, of course, for tyres. But, you will be happy to know that by the end of last year, there was a very strong bounce back, including with us in Bridgestone. The recovery in late 2020 was actually faster than we anticipated. So it looks like the market has weathered that impact and I think one of the things that Covid has taught us all in the industry, specifically in the automotive fleet etc, is to become more adaptable and innovative. People have started using digital solutions more and more; to optimise their ways, their inventories and their projections. So, I do not see a very big negative impact over the longer term. In any case, the automotive industry globally is now focused quite a lot on the newer technologies —electrification, ADAS, autonomous driving, etc. I would think that, in all, there would be ultimately a positive mindset as we move forward. I think the resilience of the industry will ensure that it moves in the right direction, as we go into the future.
I am pleased to hear how resilient you’re painting the picture of the industry. And you actually move straight into the area that I wanted to talk about next, which are the future challenges. Here we are in 2021, with the automakers setting dates for ending the production of internal combustion engine powered vehicles. EVs are on the rise, particularly in your neck of the woods. Not so fine a trajectory here. But I guess, here too, even from a low base. What’s Webfleet doing amid these shifts to a greener, reduced-emissions future? How do you help clients make the transition?
It’s a very important topic that you touched upon Caroline, and, in fact, as you very rightly mentioned, the newer technologies specifically the ending of the ICE or internal combustion engines, and moving on to electric vehicles has been a very strong initiative by most of the European countries. For example, in the UK, which is presently leading this in Europe, and followed with Netherlands, we feel that almost 70 percent of the ICE fleet that we have will be replaced over a period of time. In Europe, most governments are giving deadlines moving into EVs within 2025 to 2030. Many countries, many OEMs will actually completely stop registering the combustion engine cars and would be only 100 percent with electric fleets. We have noticed this trend over a period of time. Webfleet was prepared and we wanted to actually help our customers over this journey. So, we started a lot of focus around helping clients get what we call a plan for electrification and we have tools within our fleet management system to actually help clients plan how to electrify their fleets, including doing calculations and finding out which of their vehicles are okay to be transferred into electric, depending upon where it rides, where are the charging points, how much mileage, what is the kind of fuel they consume. Based on that we have an algorithm which advises our clients within our system; we can report okay that out of your fleet of X number of cars, this is the number of vehicles or trucks or buses we can move to the electric side. So, that’s the one portion of it. The second is — on the same theme of electrification — you would possibly have heard we launched a very innovative program where we help all our customers find out the carbon emission data of their own fleets. There’s a tool, which helps them calculate what is the amount of carbon that is being emitted into the environment, and how to mitigate that in terms of the contributions that they make to greening the society. And in that context, we have a tie up with an international NGO. They utilise that fund for planting trees, water harvesting, and greening areas in Africa. So, we are able to help our customers, contribute to society and to the environment. It’s an international NGO, it’s called justdiggit. Actually, I would encourage you or any of your colleagues to use the calculator there, it’s on our . For example, you have 10 trucks and you have 15 lcvs, and you have 45 passenger cars, in your fleet — you input that data, we have the algorithms which will calculate how much emissions. It takes averages of the vehicle type as well as the fuel, the mileage etc. and then calculates that if you spend X amount with justdiggit, you can neutralise the carbon emission by justdiggit actually planting a number of trees etc.
So, we know, Bridgestone is all over the world. And now that you’re tied up with Bridgestone, I guess you’re going to be all over the world. But currently what places are you in?
Bridgestone is a global company; it’s been in existence for more than 90 years, and it’s got operations across more than 100 countries. Webfleet, along with Bridgestone, is helping the full journey towards digital enablement of the organisation. Webfleet, as I mentioned, is number one in Europe in the fleet management space. We have operations outside of Europe as well. We have large operations in Latin America, we are present in Mexico and Chile with our own teams, we have presence in the United States, in Canada, we have our own offices in Africa. South Africa is the hub, and then we are expanding into the rest of the countries in Africa. In Australia, we have had a large presence for quite some time. You may have seen we participated recently, also along with Bridgestone, in the Brisbane Truck Show. And we’re also planning to have expansions in Asia. Being a part of the Bridgestone family, it has helped us and it will accelerate our international expansion plans.
Let’s end our discussion with some of your thoughts on how Webfleet culture is changing to meet new demands, things like shifts to shared mobility, shifts among younger people, in particular, to bikes and scooters. And maybe also things like the Me Too movement, mental health awareness, Black Lives Matter. I know that’s a lot of big issues to address and we don’t have all the time in the world. But it’d be great if you could just comment on how seriously your company takes them.
It’s a very good question. It’s one of the great focus for us in the company We as a management board very consciously drive the culture of diversity, empowerment, and also well-being of our employees and our customers. In the Covid time we were having programs that people should not feel isolated. I mean, we’d all started working from home. So there were teams which are trying to run some internal programs. We use Yammer, which is a social chat site for internal people, so they are able to interact and counter isolation. Because we’re a software company, we have a lot of young people, so our policies are all geared to make it a very good place for them to work, to feel empowered, to enjoy the work as well as contribute to the larger society. I think the issues you have raised are very important for us. And we in the management board regularly review that. It’s been on top of our agenda, with respect to, for example, gender equality; with respect to diversity; with respect to all the parameters which drive a progressive agenda in a company. We try to incentivise people to come to work and foster, let’s say, co-working teams to improve work continuously on these cultural aspects.
I want to thank you for your time today. You’ve given us some great insights into not only your company, but the world of mobility, and of work generally. And I hope we can talk again one day.
Thank you very much, Caroline. It was such a pleasure to talk to you. And thank you for your time, and I hope to talk to you again.