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The truck of the Irish

An unorthodox entrepreneur is driving British HGV rivals out of Eire. Alan Murdoch reports
In the week that ERF, Britain's last independent truck maker, sold out to overseas control, there can be few more vivid testimonies to the decline of the British industry than the surrender of a market on its doorstep to foreign competition.

Since 1968 when Robert "Pino" Harris began importing and assembling a then unknown Japanese truck, the Hino, in Ireland, he has cut a swathe through UK rivals and largely driven them out of the Irish market. Last year his three truck franchises (Hino, Isuzu and Iveco) mopped up a combined 25 per cent of the Irish Republic's market for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), underlining the determination of a highly unorthodox deal-maker.

Among Ireland's legion of self-made businessmen there are few more enigmatic figures. The Irish media portray him as a latterday Howard Hughes because of his dislike of personal publicity. Now in his mid-fifties, he prefers the company of loyal long-term friends to glitzy receptions.

Wealth has not made him forget his roots. Long after he had become a millionaire he continued to live in the family's plain terraced house in Phibsboro in north inner-city Dublin, where the Mercedes parked outside was an incongruous sight.

His reserve is partly the result of a failed kidnapping attempt some years ago, when paramilitaries chose ransom demands as a means of fund- raising. (Harris rammed his car past the would-be abductors). Politically, he is close to the north Dublin Fianna Fail establishment. Though reportedly not a party member, he helped the organisation during Charles Haughey's leadership in the 1980s by lending cars from his Isuzu garages to canvassers at elections times.

The connection raised eyebrows five years ago during a controversy over Harris's brief but lucrative interest in a site which Opposition parties claimed the Haughey Government had pressed University College Dublin to buy, though it was happy to opt for a smaller site nearer the centre. The scandal was one of several that helped undermine Mr Haughey, who was ousted from power four months later.

Harris's rise began with a fall. Son of a Limerick horse dealer turned scrap dealer, Pino (so-called because of a childhood liking for pinhead oatmeal porridge) joined the family trade in Dublin, where they had moved, before diversifying into truck assembly. But when Britain's Guy trucks, with whom he was trading, was taken over by Leyland, Harris found himself dumped on his backside.

One story goes that the British company wanted to impose a uniform marketing style that was at odds with the individual Harris approach. It was a move Leyland would pay for later.

After seeing a Hino truck exhibited at a motor show, Harris began an intense courtship of Japan to win the assembly and sales franchise for Ireland. Hino, then virtually unknown in Europe, is now the world's second largest selling HGV marque.

Harris made the sale of each truck into a personal crusade and within a few years had done serious damage to UK-built HGV sales. Irish reports describe how he engaged truck owners in casual conversation about their vehicles, highlighting perceived weaknesses and offering a look at the Hino. Arriving at his sales depot, the driver was liable to find his name already inscribed on the side of the truck.

Motor-trade insiders acknowledge that this individual attention has been the secret. "He's his own man, and very successful because of it," says one veteran. "He'd play his cards very close to his chest, and very few people would meet him, unless you're buying a truck. Then he'll go to the ends of the earth to meet you."

Liam O'Neill, Harris's fellow director and sales manager at J Harris Assemblers, says of the group approach: "We take the view that the customer is always right. If Paddy Malone from Donegal with one truck rings looking for Pino and he's at a meeting out of the country, he will return that call. He is very much hands-on. Pino Harris is the group's biggest asset."

Harris's ten-dealer Irish network, employing 140, is as energetic as any in pursuing fleet sales in a country where large agricultural and dairy co-operatives are the biggest buyers in the HGV market. Meanwhile, the owner-drivers, which make up an estimated 40 per cent of Irish HGV sales, receive the personal touch. The Harris group claims the lion's share of this market - Harris's Hino trucks have become almost universal among driver-contractors working for BOC and the construction-and-road- materials giant Cement Roadstone. Harris convinces customers they will get personal attention and unrivalled after-sales back-up, reducing time off the road.

His style eschews fancy sales literature. Harris trucks are sold almost entirely by personal contact, by plain but persuasive dealing. "Once they've got the new truck, be it on hire purchase or lease, it's how they're looked after then that matters," Mr O'Neill says.

As we speak he is in Cork meeting a prospective new client, put in touch through one owner-driver then another, then on to the dealer. The calculation is that a client will remember that "I have one truck, and a man comes all the way from Dublin to see me."

Three years ago, faced with a rising yen driving up Japanese prices, Harris added the Ford-Fiat produced Iveco brand to his dealership as a European-manufactured alternative. It has now overtaken Hino as his biggest seller, shooting from an initial 0.3 per cent market share to 15 per cent in 1995, with the company expecting to raise that to 18 per cent this year.

"If we put an unknown truck from China on sale tomorrow we could have it well-established in a year because of the group's reputation," Mr O'Neill says. "Repeat business is strong because people know there will be plenty of service and plenty of spares. In the group the attitude is 'your word is your bond' and the job has to be done."

Harris's unaffected manner and rapport with the man behind the wheel adds a special strength. "There's nothing he likes more than keeping in touch with what's going on the streets, and having lunch with a few drivers," says Mr O'Neill.

Unlike some Irish millionaires, who like to exhibit their status in ostentatious style, Harris, who married late three years ago after the death of his mother, shuns the racecourse high life and prefers eating in plain cafes. Legend has it, he once chartered a plane so he could return early from a Mediterranean holiday, having decided he preferred smoky Phibsboro.