A ‘Star Spangled’ Story by Steve Brooks

On the surface it was a trip to Daimler’s US headquarters to formally introduce Western Star’s new 4700 model. Underneath, however, was something far bigger: The story of this enigmatic brand’s remarkable journey from the cliff edge of extinction to its unique role within the world’s most powerful automotive group. STEVE BROOKS dug down for the details.

It was a few weeks before Christmas and over a few beers late at night in an upmarket Oregon pub, a couple of like-minded blokes summarily agreed that in many respects, Jim Hebe was to Terry Peabody what Alan Bond had been to Kerry Packer.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the late Mr Packer in 1987 reportedly sold his Nine television network to Mr Bond for more than a billion dollars and three years later bought it back for just $250 million as Bond scurried to escape economic ruin. The details, however, were far more complex and in reality the story remains one of Australia’s great urban myths, perpetuated by a mainstream media intent on never allowing facts to interfere with a good fairytale, especially when it involves such powerful characters as Australia’s richest man and a fallen hero.

Yet whatever the actual events of the Packer and Bond dealings, it was a story that nonetheless idealised the notion there’s always someone willing to pay ‘above and beyond’ if they want something badly enough; a fact carved in stone by Kerry Packer’s famously callous line, “You only get one Alan Bond in your life and I’ve had mine.”

In time, and despite vastly different circumstances, it was a quote that could have just as easily come from the mouth of Terry Peabody in reference to his negotiations with former Freightliner chief Jim Hebe.

The year was 2000 and the new century was still in the grip of rash opportunism and unrestrained confidence when Freightliner, driven by Hebe’s hell bent acquisition program on behalf of corporate master DaimlerChrysler, parted with around US$690 million to acquire the Canadian truck brand Western Star from Australian businessman Terry Peabody.

It was the culmination of an incredible recovery by Western Star. In a last minute move a decade earlier, Peabody retrieved the brand from what seemed certain extinction by constructing a deal with the Canadian Government that purportedly saw each party expend a modest $10 million – with Peabody quickly recouping his outlay in operating income – to save Star’s Kelowna factory in British Columbia from closure and in the process hand Terry Peabody complete control of the troubled truck maker.

Tenacious, demanding and somewhat elusive, but always intriguing, even those who have worked closely with Peabody admit it’s difficult to gauge the man behind the calculating business persona which has at various times seen him labelled many things. Some salutatory, most not! Yet whatever his traits and the countless opinions of his business dealings, Terry Peabody did a sensational job of resurrecting Western Star, applying himself to the task with an intensity and passion that impressed and surprised in equal measure. Indeed, Peabody’s pride in Western Star could at times appear palpable, and certainly at odds with the reputation of a cold and remote businessman.

Read more of this story and more in the March-April 2013 edition of Diesel – Australia’s Premier Truck and Trailer Magazine available in newsagents or subscribe today so you don’t miss an edition.

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