Managing global executive fleets just south of the Canadian border, let alone half a world away, can be a tricky business for some, but John
Stinson seems to be up to the challenge. With 25 years of fleet experience, Stinson is a contracted executive fleet manager and consultant for Zarlink Semiconductor, Inc., (formerly Mitel Corp.) and BreconRidge Manufacturing Solutions, each headquartered in Ottawa, Canada, and specializing in the sale of high-tech wireless and broadband business telecommunications. Although Stinson is also based in Ottawa, his director-level drivers are located in the U.S. and throughout Europe, Australia, Canada, and Singapore.

Stinson previously received pharmaceutical fleet experience managing the Bristol-Myers fleet as a protégé to the late Patsy Mance.

As fleet manager for Mitel, before it became Zarlink, Stinson was responsible for a sales and technical fleet of 450 U.S. vehicles. Last September, a day after being laid off by Zarlink, Stinson was re-hired, part-time, in a sole proprietorship called Executive Fleet Services, which contracts to Zarlink and BreconRidge. Combining the two companies, Stinson currently manages a total of just 40 U.S. vehicles, 60 in Canada, and 65 in the U.K, “from a Range Rover to a Toyota Corolla and everything in between. It keeps me hopping because it’s all executive, which means it’s hands-on, rather than just having a template and saying ‘I want 20 of those.’ Each one of those 20 now is an individual deal,” says Stinson.

Employee Satisfaction
Stinson prides himself on being a “people” manager, satisfying the needs of his executives first, rather than being consumed with cost control and volume. According to Stinson, many fleet managers don’t have the insight or interest in dealing with employees. Instead, they work with manufacturers to save money on resale and operating expenses, regardless of vehicle quality or employee satisfaction.

“My focus is in dealing with the sensibilities of a bunch of high-priced individuals who are a little more idiosyncratic than the typical salesperson,” says Stinson. “I’m more a human resource in the company in giving them the benefit they can’t get otherwise for the purposes of employee retention and satisfaction. I use the various tax structures in whatever country I happen to be dealing with to the advantage of the employee where he or she can source a vehicle more cost-effectively.”

Because drivers are responsible for the residual, Stinson manages drivers closely, making recommendations upfront as to what vehicles to buy, when to buy them, and how they should be used and maintained to maximize resale value.

“If I can sell a car that’s sitting on the books at $5,000 for $8,000, then I’ll cut the driver a check for $3,000, and the driver is very happy with me,” he says. “But if it’s the other way around, and the driver is upside-down at the back end of the contract, then they don’t like me one bit.”

Vehicle turnaround time is based on the employee, averaging 26 months or as little as 18, after which executives tend to get bored with their cars and want something new. At that point, Stinson will sell the vehicle for the employee and source a new one from the leasing company. In a typical technician fleet, turnaround time is based on set parameters, such as mileage or timeframe.

Long-Distance Communication
Before becoming involved in global fleet, Stinson was concerned about managing a fleet in Europe over the phone without meeting face-to-face.

“Now I don’t think it really makes a difference,” he says. “It would be nice to put faces to names; it always makes it a little bit easier in dealing with people. But my background has been working on the phone, and I find I can sometimes be more effective this way. It takes a lot of the emotion out of talking with someone, and you can actually deal with facts.”

According to Stinson, adapting to different languages and cultures can be trying the first time setting up operations in a new country. Registration requirements and types of contracts and how they’re written vary in every country. Sometimes contracts must be translated and attorneys hired who understand global law. Even conducting business in the U.S. was a challenge in the beginning, says Stinson, but “believe me, the differences between Canada and the U.S. are nothing compared to trying to deal with someone down in Australia.

“After you’ve done your first deal, you’ve already got your suppliers set up, your credit approved, there’s a contract in place, so the only thing that’s left is the color the executive wants.”

Managing a Safe Fleet
Safety is always an issue. However, Stinson says he pays particular attention to safety in the U.S. because culturally, Americans tend to be quick to file lawsuits. To protect the company, Stinson checks motor vehicle records before drivers are hired, monitors accident records, and sends problem drivers for remedial training before removing the vehicle. Ironically, for the past two years the telecommunications company has considered prohibiting cell phone use while driving. Vehicle quality is constantly improving. Vehicles are becoming larger, and airbags are installed for all passengers. “I don’t think that there are too many unsafe cars around; you really have to focus on the driver now,” says Stinson.

A Lessor Fight
If there was one aspect of fleet Stinson could improve upon, it would be his relation with leasing companies. “It is a constant battle trying to develop relationships with people inside leasing companies so that the company can keep up with what I need.”

When conducting a car deal, Stinson negotiates with and uses the leasing company as a bank. However, he says he is frustrated when he is unable to provide the service his employees expect because the lessor’s system is slow. In addition, constant employee turnaround at leasing companies prevents him from forming relationships, says Stinson. Another problem he mentions is that as an executive fleet, versus a “cookie cutter” fleet, each vehicle ordered is different, whereas technician fleets will order 500 identical vehicles.

“I’m almost like a retail guy being an implant in the company. I do the deal, I’ve got the executive all turned on, he wants his car now, and all of a sudden he can’t get it for three or four days because it gets stuck in some process someplace.”

With cultural and language barriers playing a major factor, it can’t be easy managing executive fleets for multiple corporations from across the globe without ever personally meeting clients or drivers. However, Stinson appears to have conquered the many obstacles in his path. His business philosophy can be viewed as an example to others that satisfying employees first and foremost yields a more functional fleet with optimal employee productivity.