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"If you love what you do, it's really not work." Helene Kamon's words characterize a 40-year career in an industry she believes offers an "awesome career path for anyone."
A self-described "entrepreneur at heart," Kamon has witnessed a fleet industry evolving with economic, operational, technological, and cultural shifts and developments. It's also an industry with "wonderful challenges," she said, admitting especially enjoying being "addicted to the adrenaline rush" of meeting those challenges.
Career Begins in Chicago
Vice-president of sales for fleet management services and vehicle transport/storage company AmeriFleet, Kamon began her industry career in 1960 working for a small Chicago leasing company, Dealers CadiLease.
Founded by a group of 10 Cadillac dealers to fund leases, the company gave Kamon the "chance to learn everything. I ran maintenance management and insurance, typed chattel mortgages, handled license titles, sold cars, and brought the boss coffee." The company was later bought by Union Leasing.
After leaving Dealers CadiLease, Kamon had a "few jobs, including working for a funding company." She then joined Wendy's, handling the hamburger eatery chain's fleet for the next 11 years.
"Fleet and I grew exponentially while I was there," recalled Kamon. "I started with 350 cars in fleet and when I left, the fleet numbered 2,000 vehicles in the U.S. and Canada."
She worked directly with Wendy's founder and CEO Dave Thomas and remembers him fondly.
"Dave Thomas was a sweet man, fun. Just like in his Wendy's commercial - simple, down to earth, but very smart in a street sense. Even though he was a multimillionaire, he preferred the $14.95 white dress shirt with short sleeves from JC Penney's that he had always worn."
Leaving Wendy's, Kamon ran her own driveaway company for seven years before joining AmeriFleet, drawn by the company's plans to transform the driveaway business "into a professional format," she said.
"There was a big opportunity for improvement in areas such as technology, the Web, and electronics. The driveaway business had been very primitive - no e-billing, no reports on vehicle location or storage; drivers were contract laborers with no background checks," Kamon remembered.
Fleet Industry Evolves & Adapts
Over the past four decades, Kamon has seen the fleet industry evolve and adapt to new business realities and developments.
Entering the industry in the 1960s, it was an entrepreneurial "boom time," with "bigger-than-life" pioneering figures such as Zollie Frank of Wheels; Duane Peterson; Harley Howell and Richard Heather at PHH; and Pat Starr from Consolidated Service Corp. in Chicago, Kamon recalls.
During her career, Kamon has observed small leasing companies disappear as larger fleet leasing and management companies began to dominate the industry.
"It's all about funding and processes that these big companies can provide the market as opposed to the smaller lease companies that provided service," she said.
In contrast, the number of "huge fleet dealers that made their names selling quantities of vehicles" has now been overtaken by "smaller, more efficiently run operations," said Kamon.
"Technology has changed a lot" in the fleet industry, helping leasing companies to "really come into the forefront," Kamon noted. "In the beginning, many companies handled their own fleet operations, not working with a lease partner. Now that has come full circle" as fleet tasks increasingly are outsourced.
"Honestly," Kamon said, "I see more outsourcing happening even by leasing companies as they contract out those things that aren't their core business - leasing cars."
Future Holds Challenges
The industry's future will be "extremely challenging," Kamon believes. Technology will continue to play a "huge role" as companies streamline operations and staffing.
"Technology can tell where the car is, what it's doing, its emissions, engine status, etc. We now can get endless data to manage. It doesn't require a lot of people to collect or analyze data," Kamon said.
The upheaval among domestic auto manufacturers will leave an "indelible impact on the future," Kamon predicted. "Forty years ago, there were many more models and no foreign-labeled vehicles in fleet. But it's a world market now. American cars have parts from everywhere. It's a different world."
Today's Industry Open to Women
The fleet world has "changed completely" for women since the '60s when only a handful of women worked in the industry, Kamon said.
"Now there is a preponderance of women in fleet. I think our society has evolved," she observed. In that earlier era, women's working conditions "were a lot like those on the current [A&E cable network] television show, Mad Men."
Now, however, she finds "men in their 40s have no problem working side-by-side with women. It's a generational change. We raised our sons to be accepting of women and their equality in the workplace. They've grown up in a world in which women in careers and management are nothing new."
Women bring "different thought processes, different approaches and skills to the workplace," Kamon believes.
"There are some women - a token number - in top positions at the car companies who could be very helpful in reforming the industry that been broken," she said. "Partnerships between 'men-think' and 'women-think' are the most productive and impactful. Going through the thought process together, you can come up with really valuable universally acceptable ideas and actions."
Women are knowledge seekers, said Kamon. "They take training and education seriously. For a very long time, we had to know a lot more than men to even be considered credible."
Kamon applauds the collaboration and support women traditionally provide one another. In her experience, women "are willing to help each and share to get ahead."
While several men helped her learn the fleet business in her early career, "just as equally, there were those who said, 'Don't bother your pretty little head' about things like calculating used-car values," Kamon recalled.
She advocates mentoring other women in the industry.
"Women are great mentors to each other. Seek out a mentor or be a mentor; it's a pay-it-forward thing," Kamon advised.
In facing the industry's challenges as women, Kamon recommended," the best way to be respected is to know as much as possible. Get a good education and speak from strength and truth, and you will find respect. Get a good education and learn as much as possible about our craft."
A self-admitted "driven person," Kamon "chose" the fleet industry and finds it "very accepting." And she sees no barrier to women in the future.
The 'Helens' Make History
In 1942, Helen Bland, former fleet manager for Hallmark, Inc., left her teaching job in Eldorado Springs, Mo., and moved to Kansas City, Mo., to begin a business career that spanned 45 years.
After spending 20 years in Hallmark's order department, Bland requested a transfer to the newly formed fleet department.
She started as the assistant to the fleet manager, but the company began changing fleet managers every other year. After interviewing the third candidate for the fleet manager job, Bland asked the division director if she could take on the role.
"Helen succeeded in a mainly male-dominated field by considering herself an equal and not expecting any special treatment," recalled Debbie Mize, who assumed the Hallmark fleet manager position following Bland's retirement in 1987. "It was probably harder than normal in the beginning, but she gained respect and knowledge from hard work and treating everyone equal."
Mize also recalled, "Helen was always very open in her communication and very fair and consistent in all she did. Helen was the first female president of NAFA [National Association of Fleet Administrators] and loved the time she served on the NAFA board, especially the contact with so many other great fleet professionals serving our industry."
Helen Smorgans, Johnson & Johnson, began a 24-year fleet career in 1964. Managing fleets for Johnson & Johnson corporate and 10 other J&J companies, she was also co-founder of the NAFA New Jersey chapter and served on the organization's National Board of Governors. She retired from Johnson & Johnson in 1987. Smorgans was the second woman inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2009.
Other pioneering women included Marie Leohner from Yale and Towne and Betty Natale (nee Jackson), who worked for a pharmaceutical company. They were active in an early fleet quasi-organization called the Roundtable Group.