Where some might observe a reduced relevancy for the fleet manager’s role in a time of advancing technology, strategic sourcing, and outsourcing, Jim Frank, president of Wheels Inc., sees a “very exciting and positive thing, something worth celebrating.”
The good news, according to Frank, is that technology now capable of pushing many managerial tasks down to the driver level (e.g., ordering vehicles, tracking maintenance) and outsourcing to companies with specialized expertise and systems have “liberated” fleet managers from much of the day-to-day tedious details of the business. They then play a more important role in strategy and policy development and implementation. This evolution “substantially enhances the professionalism and opportunities” of the job, said Frank. “And that is clearly something we should applaud.”
One important example of the value of the strategy and policy leadership role involves the vehicle selector, traditionally an annual task at the beginning of the vehicle model-year, Frank said. However, opportunities to save money and enhance utility and driver satisfaction occur throughout the year, with mid-year vehicle introductions and manufacturer inventory surpluses.
Taking advantage of these opportunities requires “moving away from the rigid annual policy-making we’ve had in the past,” said Frank. “And it requires fleet managers to move toward a flexible approach to the market.”
Fleet management companies can handle the details of these transactions, but “we need people at the company. A champion who can get these decisions made and implement them,” said Frank. “That fleet person also must have enough stature, credibility, and decision-making power to negotiate these transactions on a spur of the moment basis,” Frank explained.
“From my perspective,” he said, “that makes the fleet manager more important. It’s no longer simply approving lower-level decisions, such as whether to replace the transmission on a single vehicle. We’re talking about major policy issues.”
New Roles to Play
The Wheels president sees three critical roles for fleet managers in an outsourced world. “One is managing the outsourcers. They need direction, review, and evaluation. They need goals and objectives set. Somebody’s got to manage that process.”
The second role is communicating policy and getting it approved, “being an advocate within the company for things important with respect to fleet.” And finally, “the really important role is implementation,” said Frank. “That takes energy, direction, and thought. And it can’t be done by an outside company.”
These roles are “really high-level, satisfying, and significant,” he observed. Frank believes that fleet managers can play important decision-making roles in strategic sourcing. “Sourcing groups are doing a really good job in many instances. They bring great process, but they don’t bring familiarity with the specific needs of fleet.”