By Mike Antich
Any long-time fleet manager knows change is the norm in the fleet management profession. However, in the past 12 months, fleet managers have had to deal with unprecedented challenges.
"I remember the greatest challenge I previously experienced was a UAW strike many years ago, and we couldn't get our vehicles. In retrospect to today, how small a worry that was! Today, we have had manufacturers in bankruptcy! Who would have thought that would ever happen? Being a fleet manager today means keeping an even stronger finger on the pulse of what's going on in this industry -- sometimes that's not easy," said one fleet manager.
In the wake of these tumultuous challenges and ongoing uncertainty, in the back of my mind I wondered whether fleet managers still found their jobs to be fun.
Here are their confidential responses.
One frequent observation is the job has become more challenging. "The fun is partially out and the challenge is in. If I thought 2008 was the most challenging year I had in this business, 2009 proved itself to be even more challenging," said one fleet manager.
However, most say it is still fun being a fleet manager. "Change is good, as the saying goes, and we have all had more than our fair share in the past 12 months," said a fleet manager managing a 1,000-plus vehicle fleet. "Nowadays, there are too many unknowns. This is now the least likeable part of the job. In the past, we all knew what we were doing, when to do it, how to do it, and those we were doing it with. Now, we do not know who is on first, much less second, as the rules and players are constantly evolving."
When I asked another fleet manager if she was still having fun, she replied, "That's a very interesting question. I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately. My first reaction is to say, no, it's not fun anymore. In my personal experience, that's because of all the increased controls instituted by the new corporate procurement department, the increased liability issues related to negligent entrustment, and the disintegration of long-term relationships due to the current economic situation, to name a few. Of course, that being said, it is also relative to my previous experiences. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was much more fun, although I'm afraid that's only in retrospect."
Some fleet managers are outright in saying the job is no longer fun. "I would say it is no longer fun being a fleet manager. What I like least about my job is that I no longer get to travel and meet with my peers at other companies. I learn so much from other fleet managers because no one at my company does the same job. At the moment, I do not have any rewarding moments, except maybe when I meet with my leasing company, and they tell me I'm doing a good job managing my costs during such tough times."
There was a litany of other observations by commercial fleet managers as to how their jobs have changed in recent years.
More Difficult to Develop Selectors: "In recent months, as the Detroit 3 have been reorganizing, and filling more chapters than a Harry Potter novel, it has presented different challenges, especially to those committed to buying American vehicles. Selector lists have needed a total makeover as vehicles and brands have been dropped or orphaned. Announcements on prices and incentives have been delayed. I literally had a vehicle on the selector list for 24 hours until further pricing information suddenly changed the playing field the next day."
Corporate Downsizing Has Begun to Affect Fleet: "With all the downsizing within companies over the years, the big buzz words were 'do more with less.' It's now to the point where companies have gotten so thin, the new words are 'what are we not going to do anymore.' And that bothers me."
Increased Paperwork: "The additional paperwork that comes with a smaller (or non-existent) staff. Chasing my drivers for toll violations. Managing to get the same results with a smaller budget. I suppose we're all doing that now. If I could be a fleet manager and not wear the other myriad of hats, I'd be able to be more hands-on. At this point, I'll be trusting my leasing company to do more for me." A corollary and almost universal complaint from other fleet managers is the long hours and lack of help.
Increased Management Scrutiny: "Nowadays, not only must we perform our jobs at the highest possible level, it is done under the watchful eye and scrutiny of upper management. For them, the fleet area was a non-issue for decades until two years ago when things started to change and fleet became one of the largest items on the budget. All of a sudden, it caught their attention and our lives changed as a result," said another fleet manager. A common complaint is about senior managers who fancy themselves fleet management experts. "Everyone thinks they know vehicles - they're all experts -- and have opinions on what should be done; therefore, you waste time proving their theories to be wrong over and over," lamented one fleet manager.
Making Decisions for the Short-Term: "Unfortunately, the nature of the industry, as well as the economics and politics of our organization, have influenced many substantive changes in our fleet organization. Decisions are made 'for the now,' with very little consideration for what we value as 'the big picture' involving total cost of ownership. Needless to say, many of those 'now' decisions come back to haunt us over time, and then we are responsible for cleaning up the residual effects," said a fleet manager. Another fleet manager made a similar observation: "What I like the least about my job? Watching procurement and associated incremental savings pressures play such a dominant role in fleet management."
Longer Decision Cycle: Fleet managers complain more issues are occurring lately than in the past, and it takes longer for a decision to be made within their corporate structures.
Unpredictability: Uncontrollable market forces, such as volatile fuel prices, have created much stress among fleet managers. "When fuel was over $4 per gallon everyone was scared and in a panic. Poor, uneducated decisions were made. That is when the job is not fun. I consider the spike and retreat of the fuel prices a wake-up call. The time to act on sustainability efforts, such as smaller vehicles, AFVs, etc., is now, when we are not in a panic. Prices will rise again; the only question is when," said a fleet manager.
Today, There's More "CYA" Management: "I least like all the accountability issues we are faced with daily. It seems that I spend more time in 'CYA' mode than anything else. The best part, which has always been the best part, is dealing with the drivers. While that can also be extremely frustrating, it's what makes every day different from the day before. I found throughout the years that people do incredibly stupid things in their vehicles, and I continue to be surprised when something new surfaces."
Unappreciated Until Needed: Fleet is a highly emotional issue among corporate senior managers. "We'll have a management meeting where a variety of issues are discussed and the longest and most emotional issue is always fleet. It's usually on the back burner until something bad happens and then it flies to the top with incredible speed," said one fleet manager.
Thriving on Change
Other fleet managers say they are thriving on the rapid-fire change occurring in our business. "I've had more fun this year managing our fleet than any year since I started in the business 10 years ago. The challenging economy has created opportunities. Taking advantage of some deals has netted savings and forced us to search for ways to do things more efficiently, which will again reduce our costs. The most rewarding thing I do is find solutions that save time and money. It feels good to be able to deliver big-dollar expense savings when the revenue side of the business is struggling," said one fleet manager in the Southeastern U.S. Some fleet managers find dealing with challenges, in and of themselves, to be rewarding. "The most rewarding part of my job is that there is always a challenge, and even more so today," said one fleet manager.
Some view surmounting the challenges confronting them as a badge of honor.
"Am I still having fun? You bet. Could things be easier and less challenging? Of course. I think, if the truth be known, many fleet professionals will look back on this time period and think it was rough, but not the roughest time of their careers. We will wear this as a badge of honor -- they threw me their best shot and I kept the wheels of my fleet turning and operating," said one fleet manager.
In the final analysis, what truly matters is attitude, said other fleet managers .This was reflected in the observations of one fleet manager. "Many years ago, I learned that with any job, your attitude makes all the difference in whether you have fun. In spite of today's challenges, it's time to work harder and overcome the obstacles facing us."
Another fleet manager offered a similar perspective. "Like most jobs, fleet seems to be more challenging every day. However, if you're open-minded and have a positive attitude, you'd have more 'fun' than being negative and reminiscing of the older, supposed 'easier' days. If you're not having fun, or do not like your job, your goal should be to find a new one. It's fun to be a fleet manager when you have the right attitude. With it you may find you keep the job you like longer."
In the meantime, let me know if you think it's still fun to be a fleet manager.
Next week's Market Trends Blog will explore what fleet managers find most rewarding about their jobs.