In 2012, Joe Schmoeckel was at a crossroads. He was sitting with his manager at Lundbeck, a global pharmaceutical company specializing in brain diseases, after completing a major project for the company.
Schmoeckel asked his manager, “What’s next?” His manager returned with another question: “What do you know about fleet?”
“Enough to be dangerous,” Schmoeckel replied, though inside he was chuckling — he knew little about cars and didn’t have an affinity for them. His manager dropped a stack of papers on his desk and said, “Run with it, Joe.”
This wasn’t going to be a small project, a mere task of selecting vehicles and deploying them to the drivers. He was being asked to deliver an equitable transition plan that included creating a safety program and establishing policies and compliance governance plans — while becoming knowledgeable in insurance and legal issues for vehicle fleets.
Cars may not be his thing, but he believed his previous experiences had prepared him for this moment to shift the company’s salesforce from a reimbursement program to an owned fleet.
Systems, Processes & People
In a common refrain among fleet managers, Schmoeckel didn’t know he’d end up in the position. “People don't wake up and say, ‘I'm going to be a fleet manager.’ They don’t go to school for it,” he said. “And then it happened to me.”
He took a circuitous route to get there, through a variety of professions and work environments.
Schmoeckel grew up in a construction family in the Midwest. He initially thought he would be an electrician, but when he went to college for natural sciences, he ended up with a biology degree. That put him on a path to becoming a doctor — to the delight of his mother — but admitted he wasn’t cut out for that. Instead, he got hired out of college as a buyer for a chemical company.
Schmoeckel left that job after a few years to form his own construction company but decided to get out before the stress and physical demands caught up with his body. At that point, “I was 32 years old, and I thought, what do I want to do with my life?” he said.
He went back to college to get a graduate degree in computer science and subsequently got a job working on mainframe computers for a data systems company in the banking industry. There, a random work encounter started him on a path to how he’d be known in his career — no matter what job he was in. A manager approached Schmoeckel and his colleagues and asked if anyone wanted to work with PCs. This was the late 1980s when the PC market had yet to take off. The mainframe guys had no interest, Schmoeckel said. But he raised his hand.
“My first day on that job I walked down to the end of the hall to a table, a chair, and all these boxes and they said, ‘Good luck.’”
Schmoeckel was able to get the PCs up and running and learned how to program them. This ultimately led to a vital project for the company — understanding the programming that captured ATM traffic — which enabled him to identify potential errors and communicate them to the banks. Big money was on the line. “If an ATM went down, the banks needed to know about it.”
Schmoeckel was earning a reputation: “Hey, if no one else knows how to do it, give it to Joe, he'll find out how,” he said.
And that’s how he became known as the “Go-To guy,” a project manager who could connect the systems, processes, and people, and get it all up and running. At another company, “The IT director came to me and said, ‘You've had success in doing all these other things, what do you know about putting in a data center?’”
“I know enough to ask the right questions, and I can learn,” he responded. “And who else here in the company is going to do it? (The supervisor) just looked at me. He kind of smiled and he walked away.”
Schmoeckel got the data center up and running, and numerous other projects followed. In the process, he became an effective manager of internal startups.
Are we seeing a pattern here?
Schmoeckel brought this reputation to Lundbeck.
His first job at the U.S. headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois was to set up the digital marketing and CRM (customer relationship management) system. He found the necessary vendors, organized training, devised the standard operating procedures, worked with IT to assemble the proper hardware, and then created a reporting system to define metrics and success.
“I was working through everything, down to how the calls were placed,” he recalled.
When the fleet initiative landed in his lap, his project management mentality gave him the confidence to say, “We're going to build a fleet program that's going to be the best in the industry.”
When he started, he didn’t know what a fleet management company was. He didn’t know the cost elements that go into TCO (total cost of ownership), or even the types of vehicles he’d be offering employees. But his indifference to cars was an advantage of sorts. “It’s better that way, I did not have any preconceived notion of what was good or bad out there,” he said. Schmoeckel defined the nascent fleet program around three key performance indicators (KPIs): safety, meeting cost expectations, and image — would employees want to drive the cars they were offered?
He started putting together the program in the summer of 2012 when 140 employees were involved in the initial switchover from reimbursement to fleet. The first fleet car was delivered in May of 2013. The fleet size is now about 650 vehicles.
The migration to an owned fleet was met with some resistance, as a few employees had been collecting tidy reimbursements for older vehicles. However, launching the new plan saved the company $600,000 in the initial group alone. A few years later, Schmoeckel was putting together a fleet budget for account managers in a division within the company. The vehicles they were looking to put them in were inexpensive but fell short in one of Schmoeckel’s three KPIs.
He collected data from other pharma sales fleets to demonstrate that his company would be at the low end of vehicle cap cost for employees at that level. He downplayed vehicle costs in favor of employee retention benefits and the image the employee and the company would want to portray.
He brought in his other KPI, safety, to show how ergonomics in a cheaper or smaller vehicle could potentially lead to medical expenses and lost productivity. And he raised the HR costs around losing and hiring employees.
Another instance involved senior management’s questions on the need to improve the average fuel economy of the fleet. He agreed with the initiative but recommended that it be postponed. He did so by demonstrating the bigger picture, using the TCO and constraint models, and the downside of switching to these other vehicles, now.
Don’t Be an Island
From his past experiences and into his role as fleet manager, Schmoeckel carries a mental knapsack of guiding principles to attack new work challenges.
Fleet management calls for leadership, which must be earned. It comes through communication and collaboration. “You can have great ideas; you can know how to do things,” he said. “But if you can’t talk to people to get them involved in what you're doing — and get them excited about it — it's not going anywhere.”
In terms of collaboration, Schmoeckel has “a review team for everything,” from finance and HR to legal issues, and he learns to speak their languages.
“I think the greatest skill for a fleet manager is to develop a network of support people in key departments,” he said. “Don't be an island.”
He’s a proponent of case studies. Start with an internal survey, then benchmark it against the industry at large. Get feedback from your fleet management company and other fleet managers. Treat it like an RFP process.
Schmoeckel even pulls in Lundbeck’s sales VPs, because they’re connected with VPs at other companies who can be a source of information to benchmark an issue. With this collaborative effort, he can confidently address senior leadership with a path forward.
In a specific study that Schmoeckel managed, only 18% of the respondents indicated that the initiative was worthy. “At that point, it was a pretty good indicator to scrap the project,” he said.
And don’t neglect exercising emotional intelligence: How do you handle yourself in an argumentative situation, or when you’re dealing with someone who is upset? How do you calm that person down?
Throughout his career, Schmoeckel has asked himself these questions: What are you known for? And what do you want to be known for? For Schmoeckel, the answer is, “the Go-To Guy.” It was his way of finding out how he could be of value to his company and always be employed. Perhaps more importantly, the search for the answer allows the asker to find purpose and satisfaction.
“I've never been bored in my life,” he said.
What is on the horizon for the Go-To guy? He’s bringing his past project startup experience to develop and deploy an electric vehicle implementation strategy to help achieve corporate ESG goals — a strategy consistent with his KPIs.
Joe Schmoeckel’s 5 Pillars to Fleet Management Success
- Be executive and business-minded:
- Run your department like a business. Find a need and fulfill it.
- Focus on the impact of decisions on the entire business, not only your area.
- Look to make others successful.
- Be a communicator – both written and verbal:
- Hone your communication beyond policies and training documents.
- Share current events with an interpretation of the impacts on your business.
- Recognize others in writing on individual and public levels.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate:
- Build advocates in HR, finance, legal, and procurement departments.
- Go outside your company to build relationships with customers and vendors.
- Create review teams.
- Learn to talk in other department’s terminology.
- Grow personally and professionally:
- Take seminars and classes but go beyond that. Read, study, and seek experiences.
- Develop a critical-thinking mindset:
- Pinpoint what to improve and how to improve it.
- Constantly ask why, why, why?
- Use multiple measures – go beyond one level of thinking.