Reviewing a new Donlen sales presentation are (left to right) Paul Hilder, VP/fleet management services; Don Rappeport, Chairman/CEO; Steve Sammis, VP/sales eastern region; Gary Rappeport, EVP; Bill Bush, VP/sales, western region; and Zeno Wismiewski, VP/client relations.
In the late 1980s, acquisition and mergers became prevalent among leasing and fleet management companies. In an industry that is demandingly sophisticated, high-tech, and service-support oriented, these companies suddenly found themselves facing a flat market.
The subsequent restructuring of the vehicle leasing industry created a group of five mega-companies, leaving Donlen Corp. as one of the few remaining middle-sized lessors offering "state-of-the-art" fleet management services nationwide.
It's no accident that Donlen is prospering in this market position. Built on a quarter-century tradition of customer service, Donlen was one of the first fleet management companies to develop computerized systems specifically designed to improve customer service. A review of Donlen's history of customer service and innovation provides insight into how it managed to prosper during the volatile 1980s without falling victim to a merger.
When Don Rappeport and Len Vine started Donlen 25 years ago, they joined much more than just two first names. Backed by Ford Authorized Leasing Systems and Yates Motor Co., the two partners also brought together more than 17 years of leasing experience and a shared commitment to provide superior customer service.
From the beginning, Rappeport and Vine demonstrated a commitment to their customers which virtually guaranteed that the new partners would be putting in plenty of 15-hour days at their modest storefront location.
For the first few months, they worked without any employees, sharing secretarial duties and recruiting family members whenever they needed extra help. It wasn't until six months after opening their business that the partners hired Joan Sinsky as their secretary.
Sinsky, who still works part-time at Donlen, clearly remembers the excitement of those early years. "The two partners made a great team. Len worked mainly with the suppliers, banks and financial people. Don was the primary salesman. Don seemed to always anticipate what customers wanted, and he was extremely tenacious about customer service," says Sinsky.
Almost Never On Sundays
One particular example of Rappeport's tenacity stands out in Sinsky's mind. "Don worked long hours, but it was important for him to keep Sunday open for his family," she says. "One prospect really pushed Don to the limit. Don knew the prospect had time during the week, yet the man kept saying he was busy, every day but Sunday.
"Finally, after weeks of frustration, Don managed to get a meeting - it was on a Sunday. The prospect deliberately tested Don. He wanted to know if Donlen cared as much about its business as he did about his. We got the business, thanks to Don's willingness to meet the customer's needs."
Donlen's commitment to customer service helped the partnership nourish, and the company grew steadily through the 1960s and 1970s. When Vine passed away unexpectedly in 1979, Donlen had more than 40 employees, leased more than 10,000 cars, and had expanded its service to include nationwide coverage.
Following the examples set by Rappeport and Vine, a service orientation evolved at the company, which was dedicated to providing personalized service for each and every one of its clients. This tradition set the stage for what the lessor today terms the "Donlen Difference."
Paul Hilder, vice president of fleet management services, remembers how Rappeport's concern about service launched a Donlen program that had a revolutionary impact on the fleet leasing industry.
One afternoon, Rappeport came into a meeting and began explaining how computers could be used to create a direct computer service network. "It didn't matter that other lessors weren't doing it," Hilder explains, "Don felt that an on-line system would reduce paperwork, make order processing more efficient, and provide our customers with access to a wide variety of information."
Hilder remembers that discussion as the birth of the industry's first online customer-oriented computer facility. Introduced by Donlen in 1981, the on-line capability launched a new era of high-tech communications between customer and vendor which was unprecedented at that time in the auto leasing industry. Donlen's development of this sophisticated computer service network was a milestone that marked the change from "just doing business" to "fleet management."
Continuing the Tradition
In 1985, Rappeport's son, Gary, joined Donlen after several years in sales and management with Hewlett Packard. Gary Rappeport, now executive vice president of Donlen, earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and brought with him a desire to continue the Donlen tradition of service.
During that mid-1980s era of mergers and burgeoning mega-companies, Gary Rappeport recognized the need for Donlen to maintain its "difference" in order to secure its niche in the industry. Donlen's challenge going into the 1990s, according to Gary Rappeport, was to provide a more flexible approach to automation and information management, yet continue to maintain its tradition of customized service.
The most important task facing the company was to reorganize its operations by streamlining its administration to allow Donlen to be more responsive to its customer's needs. The lessor thus redesigned its computer systems to further maximize flexibility and facilitate customer service for the years ahead.
A Service Becomes a Reality
One way to view Donlen's success is the number of new service programs recently introduced by the company. In the past three years, 10 new services have been introduced by Donlen. From its "FleetSource" software, which totally computerizes fleet management, to "Fleet Management Exception Reporting," which isolates variances from predefined standards, each new program has helped its clients become more efficient at the job of fleet management. A commitment to customer service such as Donlen's doesn't come without a price.
"Companies that try to treat each client uniquely will typically burden their own systems, especially accounting, and Donlen is no exception," says John Rook, Donlen's controller.
As Rook puts it, "Nine times out of 10, when the customer wants a service that doesn't fit into our system - I change the system." But Rook is not deterred. He believes, as do the rest of Donlen's employees, that internal flexibility is an essential part of customer service.
Service for the Long Run
Don Rappeport and Len Vine's original commitment to personal service, reinforced by Rappeport's continuing advocacy of technology, is being carried forth by Gary Rappeport, who has committed himself to the same tradition. It is this tradition, the company believes, that has helped the company prosper during a period of industry volatility.
Today, both father and son are convinced that they are on the right course for the future. Both agree that Donlen is positioned to be "the fleet management corporation of choice" for companies that need both advanced information management and responsive personalized service.
"The fit is right," Gary Rappeport argues. "There isn't another company around that can give you the combination of personal, high-tech service that Donlen can. That, in a nutshell, is the 'Donlen Difference,' and it will continue into the future."
Looking back on the past 25 years, Don Rappeport has a succinct explanation for Donlen's success. "We serve our customers. Whatever they need in order to obtain and manage their car fleet, we'll do it. We always have - we always will."