Five decades can offer exceptional perspective: the long view of trends, challenges, and innovations.
Gail Watson has had such an industry front-row seat, joining the Nationwide Insurance fleet in 1971 and serving as Nationwide’s fleet and parking services manager from 1981 until her recent retirement.
“I can recall back in the 1970s when the big thing was whether cruise control was worth adding to fleet vehicles to save on fuel,” she says. “Fast forward to today, look at the technology that’s in vehicles! Safety features such as adaptive cruise control, lane keep, and lane change and automatic braking, to name a few!”
Managing a 4,200-Vehicle Fleet
Watson managed a 4,200-vehicle fleet dispersed across the country with a $38 million annual spend. She was also responsible for Nationwide employee parking garages and third-party related vendors.
Among her accomplishments, Watson has noted her central role in several company initiatives, including vehicle branding; fleet audit compliance; expense management, involving negotiations for rebates and cost reductions; and a state-of-the-art fleet driver profile program.
The Nationwide fleet was also among the first to transition in 2007 to a Paperless Office program with partner Wheels, Inc., and in 2010, Nationwide drivers were one of the largest groups taking part in the Green Driver Challenge to develop sustainable driving habits.
In addition, Watson detailed the impact of outsourcing potential on her fleet operation.
“During my career, one of the biggest fears was the possibility of being outsourced and resultant loss of job. I looked at this as an opportunity and looked at efficiencies on who could do the job better.
“As my team shrank over the past few years, it was easy to move everyday fleet activities such as taking driver calls to our fleet management company. My team had many kudos over the years, but I think how the operation of the fleet looked when I retired was an important accomplishment, and no one lost their job.”
Contributing to Industry Groups
Throughout her career, Watson participated actively in industry groups. She held several NAFA Fleet Management Association (NAFA) posts, including chairing the national conference curriculum committee and the national editorial group, and serving three terms as local chapter chair. She was also a three-term Ford Fleet Advisory Committee member and two-term Wheels Client Advisory Board member.
Watson is grateful for her company’s support of her industry activities. “I hope they saw I was able to bring back meaningful information to help me do my job, and I can easily say my involvement helped me tremendously in my personal and professional careers,” she said.
Leaving Behind the Challenges
In the closing months of her career, Watson (along with every other fleet manager) experienced the havoc caused by the microchip shortage. “The issues causing the chip shortage must be fixed!” she said. “In my entire career, never did I dream we would be selling our used, three-year old/75,000-mile vehicles for at or near what we originally paid for them. And this shortage is severely affecting manufacturer production.”
She sees another challenge in the move to electric vehicles: battery technology and life. “For the annual number of miles I saw on fleet vehicles, I just don’t know today how drivers can make it through a day without recharging. And that can cause a performance problem if you can’t get your job done.”
Offering Words of Advice
Watson encourages continuing education, staying close to industry experts, and, most importantly, networking with peers. “I like the online General Forum NAFA put together where fleet professionals can post questions. I’ve seen really helpful responses!”
As parting advice, Watson said key talents vital to successful fleet managers are “innovation, staying informed, and using the knowledge you have to think out of the box. And don’t be afraid to try new things!