The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

What the Fleet Managers of Yesteryear Can Teach Today’s Fleet Managers

Although fleet managers of 40 years ago wouldn’t be able to tell an iPod from an iPad, there is much today’s fleet managers can learn from their predecessors.

March 2011, by Staff

One of the ongoing themes in the fleet industry today is that somehow, the profession has changed dramatically from that of 20, 30, or 40 years ago. We're in a "knowledge" industry, the "information age," where computers, the Internet, and now smart phones have made the job of the fleet manager virtually unrecognizable from what it was in the past.

To an extent, and in some ways, this is true. Where the 1970 fleet manager used a desktop adding machine, a pencil, and a green paper spreadsheet, today's fleet manager enters formulae and numbers into an electronic spreadsheet.

Though both share the office telephone as a key means of communication, the phone booth of the '80s was replaced by the cell phone. As little as 20 years ago, e-mail was something new and mysterious, and a fleet manager's written communications were typed out on a word processor and mailed. Today, if we're away from our BlackBerry or iPhone e-mail for an hour, serious "withdrawal" kicks in.

But has all this really changed the job itself? Has the job of a first baseman in baseball changed because Lou Gehrig wouldn't recognize the glove used today by Albert Pujols? Has a golfer's goals changed because today's driver is three times the size of the one used by Ben Hogan? No, no, and no. The job of the fleet manager, in 1970 and today in 2011, are the same: to acquire, care for, and manage a fleet of vehicles in the safest, most cost-efficient manner possible. Surely, there are things Tiger Woods could learn from Ben Hogan, and equally surely there are things the fleet manager of 2011 can learn from fleet managers of years past.

What Was It Like?

What was fleet management like, say, 40 years ago, in 1971? How were the basic functions carried out? First, just about all of what is done today with the click of a mouse or the push of a cell phone button was done manually, written with pen on paper or typed into a desktop typewriter (and a manual typewriter at that). The open-end lease was still being discovered, and many fleets leased via fixed-term, closed-end leases. Vehicles were ordered either from a fleet-minded dealer or via the fledgling fleet service known as a "buy-sell" or "purchase-disposal" program from a fleet lessor. Orders were written, or typed, onto a paper requisition (don't forget the carbon copies), stuck in an envelope, and mailed. Order status came by mail too, or a phone call to the supplier.

Drivers got a phone call from the dealer when the vehicle was delivered; the courtesy delivery fee might have been $25 or $30. Confirmation went to the fleet manager via a post card, or a copy of a sight draft for the title and registration.

The bottom line? Fleet management was primarily a manual process, and fleet managers were more involved in day-to-day activities than they are today. Data was accumulated and reports generated via mainframe computers, and any changes required programming that sometimes took weeks. Communications took place via telephone or hard copy memos and letters.

Who Were They?

Going back decades, fleet managers were more likely to come from an automotive background than they are today. They came out of dealerships or had motor pool experience in the military. Hands-on experience, either buying, selling, or maintaining and repairing vehicles was more common than it is today; as many fleet management programs were in their relative infancy, it was more important as well. This led to a perception that has carried over even to today, that the fleet manager was a "car guy," a double-edged sword.

Today, a fleet manager is likely to have some background in finance, accounting, purchasing, or sourcing, and less likely than in the past to have true automotive experience. This is where yesteryear's fleet managers can help.

It's Still About Vehicles

As stated earlier, there is something to be said about fleet management today being different, that the accumulation and tracking of copious amounts of data is more important than ever. That said, it is sometimes forgotten that this data is accumulated by the acquisition and operation of a fleet of vehicles, and the more a fleet manager knows about the subject asset, the more effective performance can be.

For example, we often take today's maintenance management programs for granted. The management of a preventive maintenance regimen and decision-making when repairs are needed can be outsourced. After all, isn't it best to use the expertise and resources a fleet supplier can provide, rather than getting directly involved? Yes, and no.

The large majority of activity in most fleets, as it pertains to maintenance and repair, is routine preventive maintenance and predictable repairs (tire and brake replacement, for example). Much of the rest is covered under warranties that are vastly lengthier and more comprehensive than anything a fleet manager in 1975 had working in his or her favor. But the fact remains that there are always decisions to be made when repairs are required that aren't predictable, and that occur beyond the warranty period.

Learn the Asset

The first lesson yesteryear's fleet manager can teach fleet managers of today is to learn the asset they're managing. Certainly, fleet management is as much managing data as it is managing vehicles. This was as true 30 years ago as it is today. Just because, however, that data is collected and mined far more easily today does not mean a fleet manager shouldn't be, to some extent, well-versed in the vehicles themselves.

Learn the basic systems: ignition, powertrain, electronic, cooling, braking, etc. It is probably not necessary to be able to rebuild an engine, or slap a rotor on a lathe and resurface it. Although larger fleets today use some sort of maintenance program, there will come a time when the fleet manager must make a decision: Should that repair be done? Is that estimate padded? How many tires are really needed?

The time will come when a conversation with the service manager at a shop, or even the technician for the fleet supplier, must take place. If the fleet manager's background is accounting or procurement, he or she should at least be able to understand the difference between an alternator and a caliper when the shop calls.

It is not necessary to actually be able to perform the repairs or diagnose the problem, but that basic understanding of how a vehicle works will make mining the data much more meaningful. Just because a child today has access to a calculator does not preclude the need to teach him or her how to add, subtract, multiply, or divide. By the same token, just because the company has access to certified technicians via a maintenance management program does not preclude gaining the advantage of knowing the assets managed. There are any number of sources available:

● Local colleges often offer basic courses on vehicle mechanics. Some are adult education courses targeted toward exactly the kind of basic understanding that a fleet manager needs.

● Maintenance providers, such as mechanical chains, tire manufacturers, and even fast lube chains, offer similar courses.

● Fleet maintenance suppliers will usually be happy to assemble a day's worth of this type of training, or offer it already.

● Auto manufacturers can be a source for this as well.

As the saying goes, you don't need to know how to play the instruments, you just need to know how to lead the band. Yesteryear's fleet managers, who often had backgrounds and experience in auto mechanics, weren't out there doing brake relinings, but were confident and knowledgeable when decision-making time came, and they had to talk to those who were doing the work.

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