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Do You Know ‘Fleet?’ Here’s a Candid Perspective

There have always been divergent opinions on the actual role of “fleet” vs. “retail” among automakers and the industry. Here are some new observations of facts that may corrode some of the myths.

July 26, 2011, by Ed Bobit - Also by this author

It was exactly 50 years ago (July 1, 1961) when I started my first day creating Automotive Fleet as a magazine. There wasn’t much in the way of statistics, as registrations weren’t even separated back then. OEM fleet departments were just getting organized — they didn’t have promotional budgets. Fleet-specific ads weren’t even developed.

My frequent trips to Detroit (from the Chicago area, where I began) driving by car gave me ample time to weigh the almost insurmountable challenges for a young guy like me who didn’t know one Detroit soul to earn recognition and acceptability.

These early history thoughts swept through my mind as I was reading Bob Lutz’s new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, this week. (Great read, I recommend it.) I’ve known Bob for many years, sharing a few cigars and drinks with him as we shared memories. We discussed his book last fall as we had dinner together at AFLA. He’s a special kind of guy, and his last job as vice chairman of GM is described well in his book.

What his book brought to mind was how totally “retail-oriented” the automaker structure really is. Historically, “fleet” accounts for about one out of every five vehicles sold, so we might expect some notice to be made for “fleet.”

I’m fortunate to attend several fleet advisory board meetings each year, where OEMs sponsor open discussions on ways to improve product and procedures, as well as invite comment on future product. We’re assured that astute, product-knowledgeable people, such as Gerry Koss at Ford, Joyce Mattman at GM, and Pat Dougherty at Chrysler, are carrying the concerns to all product development team planning meetings. My guess is that “retail” remains the 800-lb. gorilla.

Lutz talks about the dozens and dozens of consumer focus groups that provide researchers data for analytical discussion toward design decisions. (Lutz minimizes their importance; rather, he leans toward a “car guy’s” gut reaction.) While there are some, there are far too few focus groups from fleet since the retail-minded product developers simply choose to ignore a fleet voice.

It seems like I’ve been carrying the flag for “fleet” my whole adult life. While Lee Iacocca (Ford and Chrysler) called me by my first name, Bob Rewey from Ford welcomed me into his office, and Lutz became a friend, my work has been in the fleet trenches. My job is to hold the torch high for our fleet manager readers; and they are legion.

We recently took inventory of the sheer numbers of fleet manager types we influence regularly with our pure fleet magazines (not counting our school bus, transit, limousine, and other titles). We know and communicate with 74,900 unduplicated fleets. That’s even an incredible number to me to know our influence.

To place this into some sort of perspective that all of us can understand and appreciate, the NAFA Fleet Management Association, the leading association of fleet managers, which we admire and support, has about 1,625 separate company members. We reach more than 62,000 “commercial” fleets to NAFA’s 671. NAFA does tend to attract the professionals in the larger fleets, but still only have members in half of our published list of Top 300 Commercial Fleets. NAFA also publishes that its 1,625 fleets operate 3.5 million cars and trucks. This would equate to each company member operating an average of 2,183 vehicles (which does not correlate with established industry figures in any way).

I’m pointing out these stats only to underscore the total fleet market as being vast and larger than many retail-oriented people in our industry might want to admit. I’d also like to report some progress in this area. With the recently announced fleet program at BMW, we now have virtually every manufacturer that retails in the U.S. also operating a marketing campaign for fleet.

It may have taken 50 years, but I’d say that “fleet” has truly earned that recognition. Now, if we can get the factory product development committee to adopt the mantra that “fleet business is good business,” we’ll really celebrate.

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Author Bio

Ed Bobit

Editor & Publisher

With more than 50 years in the fleet industry, Ed Bobit, Automotive Fleet editor and publisher, reflects on issues affecting today’s fleets. Drawing insight from his own experiences in the field, Ed offers a perspective similar to that of a sports coach guiding his players.

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