INTERVIEW: Thiago Deiro took over as CEO of Volgren earlier this year, bringing with him a passion for lean manufacturing, standardised processes and putting the customer first. ABC caught up with him for an exclusive chat about Brazilian manufacturing, knowledge exchange and always keeping an eye out for bus brands on the street.
ABC: G’day, Thiago. Welcome back to our fine shores. Could you tell us a little about how you got into this role? Where did your career start and how did things evolve to get you to this stage?
TD: I started my career as a trainee at a company called Gerdau, a steel manufacturer with headquarters in Brazil. I spent almost five years there and then applied for a position as investor relations manager at Marcopolo in 2008.
In this role I was mainly responsible for the interaction with shareholders, investors and financial analysts. After I’d worked in both investor relations and finance manager roles, I was invited to take over the position of chief human resources officer; that was in December 2016. In 2017 I held a HR global summit in Brazil. The aim was to align the HR processes, strategies and policies – what we call the Marcopolo way, which basically consists of the major processes that we’d like for every single company from the Marcopolo group to start practising and implementing.
ABC: It must have been challenging as head of global HR, especially considering Marcopolo has so many global sites and subsidiaries, and companies like Volgren have such a strong sense of their own culture and identity.
TD: Yes, that’s a challenge. We always have to think about different characteristics, not only in terms of people and processes, but also in terms of culture. The great news is that, just like in Marcopolo Brazil, people here at Volgren are proud of the product and the company. We have a good workplace and great people.
Of course, culture in Australia is different from culture in Colombia, which is different from culture in Brazil, but in the end we are all human beings.
Last year we conducted a global employee engagement survey for the entire Marcopolo Group. It was unsurprising for me to learn that the ‘topline’ findings were pretty much similar across the Group. Regardless of the site and the country we all like to work in a safe, clean and organised place, with supportive and transparent leaders that coach us, promote and reward based on performance.
However, the size of the company, the budget and the labour laws do play an important role when defining new strategies and new processes. We have to be creative, debate ideas and try to accommodate and meet each other halfway.
ABC: As the head of global HR did you focus much on lean manufacturing and how to get teams to work more efficiently?
TD: Absolutely. The main differences between Marcopolo and Volgren are the processes and the products. Volgren builds the bus body using aluminium with basically no welding. In Brazil it’s steel; it’s all welded. It’s a lot of people and a lot of effort.
Despite that, the lean manufacturing mindset can be implemented in every company and in every department. It’s all about people, process and skills.
When people think about lean manufacturing systems they often think “Wow, this is the Toyota process – it will take 100 years for us to implement the same way that they did there.”
But the concept is quite simple.
Basically, what we have to work on is discipline – people have to get rid of waste and disturbances on the line, focusing on safety, quality, delivery and cost. It’s a mindset. It’s a cultural thing.
The production line has to flow smoothly.
ABC: What do you like about the bus industry?
TD: I like things where you can see the outcomes. That’s what I love about the bus industry. You see your products; you see them on the streets.
I used to tell the guys starting at Marcopolo “From now on your lives will never be the same because every time you are on the street, driving your car, when you see a bus you will always ask yourself ‘Is this a Marcopolo? Is this a different brand?’” And now it’s also happening here in Australia. Every time I see a bus on the streets of Melbourne, I instantly look for the brand.
ABC: How many times had you been to Australia before taking the role?
TD: Before coming here as CEO, I think I was here four times. The last time was in February this year.
I was here for the first time when we were discussing the deal with the Grendas [the family that owned Volgren before Marcopolo] in 2012. I came twice that year. At that time I was working in the finance department, so I was helping with the due diligence and the whole acquisition process.
ABC: What can Volgren learn from Marcopolo?
TD: I think we can both learn from each other. We have all these processes at Marcopolo that I’m trying to implement here – the manufacturing system – but also standard processes that we call the Marcopolo way. The objective of the Marcopolo way is that every time you travel abroad from Brazil to visit the other sites, as soon as you get there you realise, “This is a Marcopolo company.” You see the standards, the processes, the KPIs [key performance indicators], and the way that people deal with daily activities. We have to create this mindset of being part of this bigger group.
And also in Brazil we have to learn from Volgren, because as I said earlier, we build a different product here. I think it could be introduced in some other countries. It’s a high-standard and high-quality bus, which makes it more expensive than a steel-bodied bus, but if we are moving to a full-electric bus with heavy batteries on the top, we need to think of different solutions to get less weight in the frame structure.
We have to work closer and try to better connect the design, manufacturing and engineering teams.
ABC: What’s been your focus since starting and what’s your message to staff?
TD: The first thing I did was to bring the managers together and we did a two-day strategy review. The second day we focused basically on culture, mindset, the way that we do things, values, behaviours and attitudes.
We are all here because of our customers. There is no company, there is no product, without our customers. This is rule number one.
We have to be more customer oriented. That’s why I’m visiting the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and most of our customers now.
I’ve also just hired a new HR manager, who will help me with creating a different environment for the company, promoting meritocracy, promoting training activities and focusing on people who are really performing well. Until now, Volgren hasn’t had a dedicated HR department and in my discussions I’ve discovered that it’s not really common [in the bus industry] in Australia.
For us in Brazil, we give a lot of importance to HR and to HR activities. If we don’t take care of our people, we can try to implement processes and new products, but if the people aren’t committed and engaged… In the end you’ll never succeed.
ABC: What has impressed you since starting?
TD: The good thing that I see is that people have this feeling of ownership. “This is our place. We are from Volgren. We work here because it’s our home.”
And also the quality of the products: the quality, the reliability, the whole-of-life cost of the product. It’s interesting to see a product that lasts 20 to 25 years and could last even longer.
ABC: Do you see opportunity for expansion?
TD: Absolutely. I think we should be aiming for that. We are changing processes here: reducing the talk time, being more efficient, reducing the hours per bus. That will mean we can get more orders and expand production.
We’re also working on other products like double deckers, artic buses, and [bringing] buses from Marcopolo [to Australia].
ABC: Do you think your appointment will create more of a connection between Brazil and Australia?
TD: 100 per cent! We’re already sharing personnel, skills, processes and technology, but it’s something that will increase over time.
Volgren has its own unique DNA, which will never change.
This is an Australian company that was built by Australians and you have to keep that.
Going back to your question, I really think that we should interact more with Marcopolo and we are working on that. There are some Brazilians helping us here, and I’ve sent some people to Brazil to learn from our processes there. And to exchange knowledge. As I said before, we have good things to teach and to learn from each other.
ABC: What’s Volgren doing in the zero-emission space?
TD: Volgren’s first ever electric bus went in production in May this year and was completed in late-July. It’s an exciting milestone for the company and caps off a lengthy period of investigating electric vehicles, determining best-in-class technology solutions and making sure that we built on a known quantity. The bus was built on a BYD chassis and includes 324 kWh of batteries, enabling a range of more than 250 kilometres on a single charge. The completed prototype itself was a full 12 months in the making.
ABC: What’s the response been like from the broader industry and customers?
TD: More operators and agencies are looking to zero emissions buses for the first time and ever since announcing this build, we’ve been encouraged by the interest we’ve received. The testing that we’ve done with the vehicle in the last month has been extremely positive and we’re more than ready to take on the challenge of developing the best possible bus body for electric buses.
Photography: Charlie Suriano