Women in Fleet: Intimidated No More
Lori Rasmussen, president and CEO of PARS, Inc. and current WIFM Chair, speaks to attendees at the Automotive Fleet Leasing Association (AFLA) 2017 conference during a Women in Fleet Management session. Photo courtesy of AFLA.
Women in Fleet Management (WIFM) members Theresa Belding and Sue Miller are accepted in the fleet business as industry veterans today, but they couldn’t have predicted that when they started out decades ago as two of the few women in the profession at the time.
“Initially, it was a little intimidating,” said Belding, who manages a 4,500-vehicle fleet and oversees fleet safety and risk management as director of fleet services for pharmaceutical company Allergan.
Miller felt pretty isolated when she started out. “It was definitely the good old boys club. A lot of cigars, martini lunches, and that type of thing.”
Belding is no longer intimidated, and Miller is no longer isolated. Belding has now been in the fleet business for 26 years. Miller directed a 3,500-vehicle fleet for McDonald’s for almost 30 years and has been senior fleet account manager for telematics company, Geotab, for the past year and a half. Female fleet managers like these two have made a positive mark on the industry, and Belding, Miller, and other women want to give back to the profession through their membership in the WIFM group.
Celebrating its five-year anniversary this year, WIFM provides networking, mentoring and other opportunities to women and men in the fleet industry. Counting female and male members, along with industry members involved with the group through the Automotive Fleet Leasing Association (AFLA) and LinkedIn, WIFM is now about 1,500 to 1,700 members strong.
Belding and Miller have been with the group since the beginning, but Carolyn Edwards, senior vice president for fleet management company LeasePlan USA, first came up with the idea for the WIFM organization.
About 10 years ago, Edwards had just completed LeasePlan’s Women’s Professional Development Series. LeasePlan at the time was looking to bring more women into leadership positions and held a seven-week leadership training course. “We learned a ton, and I began networking with other women at LeasePlan who I really didn’t interact with,” Edwards said. “And it just grew.” After finishing her work with the series, Edwards began checking to see if the fleet industry had ever formed a women’s leadership group.
She heard of earlier efforts to start a women’s fleet organization, but none of those lasted long. Edwards decided to start WIFM, and she was among a small group of original members that included Miller, Nancy D’Amico of LeasePlan, Gayle Pratt of Ecolab, and Christy Coyte Meyer, then of Johnson Controls and now with Adient. About 25 women and men attended the first gathering, which took place at a meeting of what is now known as the NAFA Fleet Management Association.
“It was our first meeting, and everyone wanted more,” Edwards said. “We were just getting together, saying, ‘Hey, this is Women in Fleet Management, what could it be, what do we want to turn this into,’ and it was more of a brainstorming session.” When AFLA joined forces with WIFM almost immediately afterward, WIFM’s growth accelerated.
“There is a definite need out there, and I keep mentioning women, but it wasn’t just women that signed up,” Edwards said. “Everyone seemed to enjoy what the mission was about and wanted to learn more and get involved.”
Ed Peper, U.S. vice president, General Motors Fleet, is one of several men involved with WIFM. In response to questions from AF, he wrote in an email that collaboration in the fleet industry is needed from many different perspectives. “Regardless of gender, everyone in the industry has something to bring to the table, and we can all learn and grow from each other’s success,” he stated.
The organization has met several goals of that statement. WIFM’s LinkedIn page has become a strong resource for networking. On LinkedIn, WIFM members post timely articles of interest and participate in topical discussions.
To strengthen networking opportunities among group members, WIFM also formed a book club. Members read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, discussed it at a meeting, and later participated in a webinar on the topic. Regular WIFM meetings are another avenue for networking, and the group provides a speaker for one session at each AFLA meeting. At AFLA’s recent September meeting in Las Vegas, consultant Kathleen Nalty spoke at a session titled, “Outsmart Your Unconscious Bias,” showing attendees how to recognize biases that can have an impact on business decisions and relationships.
Susan Lund of global management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. spoke at AFLA’s WIFM session last year on the topic of leadership and the importance of selling yourself and your abilities within your own organization. A WIFM presentation at an earlier AFLA conference focused on communications with different generations. Kim Lear, a writer, researcher, and generational expert, talked about understanding the different generations.
“The workforce is changing, especially in the fleet industry, and you’re seeing more of the younger generation come in, so we thought it was a great topic to kind of bridge the gap between the generations,” said WIFM leadership team member Lori Rasmussen of PARS, a fleet vehicle transport company. She added that other speakers, such as Ann Fandozzi, formerly with vanpool company vRide, have spoken to members of the WIFM group about their careers and given personal advice.
Webinars have also become a strong resource to address the portion of the WIFM mission statement that addresses expertise sharing. The Webinars don’t always cover fleet specifically. One in January focused on health and wellness and healthy approaches to the new year.
“We all had resolutions, and it was one of the highest attended Webinars for AFLA,” Rasmussen said.
If Edwards could make a resolution for the whole group in 2018 and beyond, she said it would be for WIFM to experience “growth and engagement.” She also looks forward to launching the mentoring program and expanding the number of women who serve on WIFM’s leadership team.
WIFM leaders have also discussed taking the group global and creating ties with women’s fleet organizations in Europe and elsewhere in the world, “but we’re trying to grow what we have here in the states, so I think initially those would just be discussions to see how we could expand,” Edwards said.
“We’re a bunch of full-time people trying to make a go of this without any formal training in launching a group. We’ve really leaned on AFLA, and they have helped us make this what it is today,” said Edwards.
AFLA, she noted, with the assistance of association executive Elizabeth Schlicht, has helped WIFM in the areas of structure, organization, and networking. “They align with us perfectly, their mission with our mission. There are synergies there. We wouldn’t be where we are today without all that support and all the women who stepped up and wanted to get involved. There was a definite need.”
The group senses a need in the industry for a mentoring program, and again, Rasmussen noted that men and women will be involved if WIFM’s mentorship program kicks off in 2018. “We want to create a network so if someone is looking for a mentor on a specific topic, we would also have ‘mentees’ we could pair them up with,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen’s background would make her a good mentor. She is a majority owner of PARS, and her parents own a small stake. As president of the company, she is responsible for operations, sales and marketing, finance, and strategic planning. She was serving as AFLA president when Edwards asked her if AFLA would support WIFM. “PARS is a woman-owned business, so I said, ‘Yes, of course we are.’ So that’s how the relationship started between WIFM and AFLA.”
Miller also has the experience that has made her a strong advocate for WIFM, starting out as a fleet manager for Service Master and Keebler before she came to McDonald’s. She also served as AFLA president from 1997 to 1998. Her experience made her appreciate the value of mentoring as she remembers meeting Don Fenton, Milo Mattick, Rick Nicoletti, and Mike Larue of the Chicagoland Dealer Group. They helped her navigate the good old boys club early in her fleet career. “They took me under their wing, taught me the ropes, treated me with respect and as a businesswoman, and it was beneficial,” Miller said.
Rasmussen’s experience also makes her appreciate the value of WIFM’s mentoring program. Rasmussen had a lot to learn when she started out in the fleet industry in 2004. She had exposure to the industry through her father’s work with GM, but she still had much to learn. Elsie Lucia, who is currently fleet manager for Estee Lauder, “took me under her wing, taught me a lot, and helped me navigate the fleet industry. I greatly appreciate the time she gave me and the ability to ask her questions freely when I didn’t understand things,” Rasmussen said. “We developed a friendship, and in turn I learned so much. When Carolyn had the idea to start WIFM, I was all for it. It was a way for me to also give back to those who had done it for me.”
Theresa Belding of Allergan has seen growth in the number of women in the fleet industry since she first started out 26 years ago. But she notes that the pharmaceutical industry seems to be a popular landing spot for female fleet managers, and seeing women in the industry back then was encouraging to her. She said that fleet representatives in the pharmaceutical industry seem to have more tenure than in many other industries.
“I didn’t realize fleet was a thing, I didn’t know it was a career, and I certainly didn’t know that 26 years later I’d still be doing it, but it was good for me to see other women with long-term careers in this industry,” Belding said. In addition to Rasmussen, Belding also held a leadership position at AFLA when that organization teamed up with WIFM. “AFLA is endorsing the program, supporting its message, and assisting where we can. Early on we provided some minor financial support and time at the conference, and use of our resources, such as mailing lists.” She added that the WIFM speakers are popular at the AFLA conference. “While it’s women in fleet management, men come to see our speakers too. We’re not an exclusive group. But it’s definitely a place for women to network and benchmark and provide support for one another.”
WIFM member Christy Coyte Meyer, global fleet director for Adient, said the WIFM group has a “unique influence” and is inspiring. “I especially love to see new people entering the fleet world and sharing experiences with them. I also think it’s a great opportunity for networking and mentoring.”
About the author: Daryl Lubinsky is a regular freelance contributor for Bobit Business Media publications, including Fleet Financials and Automotive Fleet.