One question that each fleet manager must answer is this: is it more economical to have maintenance and repairs performed in-house or to make other arrangements? Other arrangements may mean a service warranty or a comprehensive national account program. Such arrangements clearly have advantages. But what if the size of the fleet isn’t large enough, in the fleet manager’s eyes, to warrant such outlays. Just how much can the fleet manager save by doing everything in-house?


Questions such as these have always been much in the mind of Bill Sakowich, who serves as fleet manager and service coordinator for Astor Pest Control, Inc. The company serves the greater Boston area and Cape Cod, offering pest control of termites, rats, cockroaches, and tree-living insects. Astor is also the owner of Terminix franchise, and they service national accounts, which include such companies as Eastern and American airlines and Friendly Icecream. What this means is that vehicles in the company’s fleet fall into two groups: Astor Exterminating vehicles and Terminix franchise vehicles.


The company’s central office is not far from downtown Boston, and they have a branch office in Hyannis. Over half of the staff of 40 people are drivers, serving as salesmen, inspectors, work supervisors, and technicians. Vehicles are not only indispensable to pest control work, but effective fleet management at Astor makes a considerable contribution to the company’s overall profitability.


But before exploring Sakowich’s innovative and highly personal approach to the task, first some more detailed description of the fleet:


At Astor, downsizing is not just rhetoric. “We’ve downsized since “81,” Sakowich comments, and a glance at the company’s vehicle list shows a preponderance of Fairmonts and Chevettes and a definite commitment to imported small pickups. “Small light trucks are the wave of the future,” Sakowich offers, nodding to one of the Datsun King Cabs converted for pest control technician use. “They are perfectly suited to our needs. When you take a look at one of these vehicles with the cap installed and loaded, you’ll see why they are the wave of the future.”


In contrast to some fleet managers who have relayed driver dissatisfaction over downsizing, Sakowich sums up driver reaction with the phrase “No problems.” And in terms of small trucks, Sakowich qualifies downsizing with this single proviso: “Our only requirement is this: we have to put two-way radios in the vehicles. So as of our next pickup purchase, all will have king cabs.


Drivers fall into four different categories: salesmen, who also perform termite inspections; service supervisors, who inspect work; technicians, who actually perform work; and spray-truck operators. Vehicle selection is determined by the requirements of the operator’s job. Technicians, for example, require a separate, lockable cap or a large trunk to carry chemicals, so they drive either small pickups with caps or Fairmonts, whereas salesmen, who make initial client contact and who log in the neighborhood of 50,000 miles a year, have been receiving a new Chevette or Alliance each year. After the salesman is done with a vehicle, it goes to the service supervisor who will hold onto it until it is retired.


“I have a 4WD vehicle,” Sakowich explains. “I have to be here at 6:30 a.m. because I’m also the service coordinator, and I live 30 miles from her, which with four feet of snow can mean quite a trek. Then we also have some executive vehicles in our fleet.”


Sakowich also notes, “The Chevettes in our fleet are diesels.” When questioned as to the performance of the diesels, which have been suffering from a bad reputation in some segments of the fleet world, Sakowich comments, “With our diesels, we haven’t spent a dime on maintenance – and that’s in 150,000 miles. Preventive maintenance, sure, but that’s an investment.”


Sakowich isn’t concerned about diesels’ low resale value. “Our vehicles aren’t worth very much when we’re done with them anyway. Our replacement policy is simply this: we get rid of them when it’s too costly to repair them, when the actual dollar figure for a repair is more than the vehicle is worth.”


As to choosing between comparable vehicles from different manufacturers, Sakowich says that price is the prime determining factor. ‘We’ve had good luck with Datsun. The reason we bought the Toyotas was that when I needed two vehicles, I couldn’t find two Datsuns the righ color.”


After acquiring a vehicle, it takes approximately two weeks to put a vehicle into service. Sakowich first rustproofs the complete undercarriage at a cost of approximately $150. They then install a GE Master two-way radio, which, Sakowich comments, retails in the neighborhood of $1,500 but which has been pulled from a vehicle that is being retired. Sakowich continues: “We then install a metal cap manufactured by one of two local companies, Williams Trailer or Yankee Cap, at an approximate cost per unit of $400, then a ladder rack. At that point, our maintenance man, Fred Gilreath, partitions off the inside, first putting a plywood floor in the bed and then cutting and fitting two-by-sixes to keep the equipment in place. The last thing is lettering with the company logo and name, at a cost of $75 per truck. Then I road test each vehicle, driving it personally for a couple of days to make sure it performs right under both city and highway conditions and that the conversions are complete and functional.”


Company policy allows drivers to take cars and trucks home, fully stocked, but vehicles are for company use only, not for personal use. Insurance is determined according to the city in which the driver garages his vehicle. Fuel is dispensed at the Astor yard; the company has a 2,000- and a 1,500-gallon tank and purchases fuel from a distributor. Tires are purchased through a national account program; major repairs are subcontracted. But otherwise, almost all other work is performed in-house.


Sakowich explains that in-house maintenance is a comprehensive operation covering 95 percent of required work, including: tune-ups, oil changes, brakes, water pumps, starters, alternators, tire installation, winterization, and light engine work. Bodywork is farmed out to the lowest-price shop contracted on bid; but with body work as with any heavy-duty maintenance, Sakowich pays for labor only, supplying all the parts for himself. Parts are purchased through local dealers and jobbers (parts distributors). Sakowich stresses that “this is through my contacts. I was in the parts business first, working for eight years as assistant parts manager for the largest Ford dealer in New England, Atamian Ford, then for five years as parts manager for Petersen Ford for five years. During those years, I developed a lot of contacts.” Given to understatement, Sakowich says that the prices he gets for parts and labor are “highly competitive.”


Sakowich is committed to preventive maintenance. “Because of our good PM program, we usually don’t have major problems. In the last year, for example, we had one transmission problem.” Details of Astor’s PM program include weekly driver inspections and a 3,000-mile check on all vehicles. For the weekly inspections, Sakowich has devised a checksheet which each driver fills out and turns back in to him. Repairs are made on the spot.


Astor’s cost-efficient maintenance allows the company some unusual vehicle acquisition and replacement policies. “We just pulled four Fairmonts off the road and purchased four more ‘79s from a government auction, all of which have approximately 60,000 miles. I estimate another two years of use for each. I find it more economical to buy a used vehicle and then perform good PM and in-house maintenance. I can replace three vehicles for $6,000, whereas it would cost me $6,000 for one new vehicle. The Fairmonts which I just bought are all four-cylinders, so they’ll have good mileage, and they’ll go to technicians who live in the vicinity and who won’t log very high mileage. Of the vehicles I pulled, I’ll keep one just for parts; if I need a door, a transmission, even an engine, I’ll pull it off the dead vehicle.”


The actual maintenance falls to Fred Gilreath, who has been working for the company for more than 20 years. “Fred works from 7 a.m. till 2:30 p.m. the first four days of the week and for three hours on Friday morning,” Sakowich explains. “In addition to peforming vehicle maintenance and repairs, he also does all building maintenance and repairs all of our technicians’ equipment. He’s a main reason why our fleet maintenance program is so effective.”


The other half of the equation is Sakowich’s ability to economically acquire parts and subcontract work when necessary. “Say it’s time to do an oil change. I can buy a quart of oil for 65 to 70 cents,” Sakowich offers. “Some dealers don’t even get it for that. Then there’s the oil filter, and with filters, just like with any part, I always buy genuine parts and top-grade materials; I don’t fool around with cheap stuff. So an oil change will cost me about $5 in materials and the neighborhood of $4 to $5 for in-house labor. We end up spending less than $10 for an oil change. If we sent the vehicle to a dealer, it would cost $25. Very simply, we’re saving about 60 percent.”


The approach that Sakowich has developed for the Astor fleet is not intended as a cookbook; each fleet has its own needs and requires its own solutions. But the case history of Astor Pest Control presents one interesting story of a successful operation. And as with every successful operation, there are lessons to be learned.


Bill Sakowich and Driver Larry McCann pose with a full-stocked vehicle.