Call me Schlemiel. You probably will anyway after you read this. But I'm not writing this to make any friends. Automotive Fleet has asked me to lay it on the line (tell it like it is, in the updated vernacular), get a few gripes off my chest regarding the use and misuse of the company car, and list the complaints of the average fieldman who must contend with the policies of his company's fleet manager.
First of all, to identify myself a little more specifically, I'm employed as a fieldman for a large midwestern concern that ranks about tenth in its field and has assets of over $25 million according to their last annual report. I travel about 25,000 miles per year in and around a large metropolitan area so that my driving time is a combination of numerous short stops and substantial trips of fifty to seventy-five miles on which expressways are used. I am on the road for the better part of the five- day work-week (except for brief periods in the office to file reports, pick up supplies and fill out records. In fact, when I think of it, I spend most of my waking life in my company car. It's kind of a home away from home when you consider the time I spend in it.
Let's see then, how my multi-million-dollar company provides for me in this domicile on wheels. As for the financial arrangements, these at first seemed quite liberal when outlined to me at the time I was employed. I am given the car to use virtually as my own. That is, all costs of repairs, gas and oil, insurance, and maintenance are paid for by my company. No charge is made for my use of the car for my own personal use (which to all intents and purposes is limited to week-ends and evenings). I am, however, charged 10¢ per mile should I choose to use the car on my vacation (plus the cost of gas and oil). It sounds good and equitable; but let's see how it works out in practice.
For example, take a look at the car I am given. In the trade it's known as a ''cheapo''-the stripped-down, one-color, two-door, standard line of either Chevrolet or Ford. Aside from the mandatory safety equipment that comes with every new car, the only luxury item I'm allowed is an armrest. Radios are strictly OUT. When a number of my fellow field men asked about radios they were told that a radio in their cars would take their minds off business between this and that, furthermore, the cost of equip ping the fleet with radios would be prohibitive.
This is, in my opinion, typical of the shortsightedness of management in general and of a number of fleet managers I have talked to in particular. First, it overlooks the fact that for the man travelling a great deal of the time the radio is a valuable tool. It lets him know of weather and road conditions. It advises him if certain routes are tied up in traffic jams. And the radio also provides a certain amount of relaxation between stops that may generate tension. Consequently, a driver without a radio may waste valuable time in getting to his destination late and get there in a state of mental and emotional exhaustion. When that happens, it means a possible loss of money to the company.
Then too, there is the question of the value of a car at trade-in time when it has no radio. Used car salesmen have advised me that the best tip-off for the sophisticated used-car buyer that a car is a hard-driven company car, is the fact that the car has no radio. The minute they sense that fact about the car they shy away from it or expect a greatly reduced price. And knowing this, dealers who bid on a company car that has no radio, immediately lower their bid when it comes to trade-in time.
But as with most of my fellow-employees who have been with my company for any length of time, my car does have a radio. It's a practice that my company frowns on, but winks at when they discover it. You might ask, how do I get away with it? The secret is in handling the dealer from whom I obtain my bids from when I trade the old car in. I simply ask him to "bury" a radio in the transaction. If I can convince him that he will get the deal, regardless of what other bids I get, he is usually more than happy to comply. In fact, some dealers will even go so far as to provide you with the two other competitive bids from other dealers that you need. They keep a supply of stationary from various other dealers in the bottom drawer of their desks, for just such purposes. So in the end, you get your radio, if you work it right.
Unfortunately, it is not quite as easy to upgrade the other equipment you might want on your car. Automatic transmissions and two-tone colors are out. There is always the problem of explaining a repair bill on an automatic transmission, should it break down. And there is always the chance that the fleet manager will see your spiffy two-tone job on some occasion when you come into the office.
Here again (as in the case with air-conditioning, which is another no-no in my company) the policy is based on false economy. Pushing a clutch in and out all day long in stop-and-start traffic (be it in the city or on a crowded expressway) can only reduce the efficiency of the driver when it comes to company business. Moreover, that inefficiency is increased when the temperature is nearing ninety degrees and the hot summer sun is pounding down overhead. I'd like to have a nickel for every time I've missed an important appointment because I've been drenched to the skin and my manly deodorant has lost its effectiveness. And I think, on those occasions, what a difference an automatic transmission and air conditioning would make. Sure, I'm out money when I break an appointment. But what about the company?
Perhaps some fleet managers might agree with my comments about radios, automatic transmissions, and air conditioning, yet argue with my request for a two-tone or vinyl-top car. What, after all, are the benefits to the driver, in such a car? I can only give a vague, involved answer. It has to do with the psychological "lift" such a car can give to a driver over the long haul. It has to do with the pride the driver takes in his car, which eventually effects how he treats his car during the time it is in his control. The company fells an employee to treat his company car as if it were his own while failing to consider that the employee would never consider purchasing such a car for his very own. Therefore, the drab two-door standard model given him is irrevocably classified in his mind as "the company car"-- that is, a car that is not his own.
But let's examine another aspect of the fleet driver syndrome to see why fleet managers are always so surprised with the bids their drivers obtain on their cars at trade-in time. I'm speaking here of service and maintenance. At first I tried to keep my car up to the best of my ability. I changed the oil as the manufacturer suggested, had the car washed frequently during the winter weather when salt was on the roads, went for periodic diagnostic tests at the dealer, and in general saw to it that it was treated like a baby.
The response of my fleet manager was anything but grateful. First, I was advised that, contrary to the advice of the manufacturer and the oil companies, I should refrain from frequent oil changes. Second, I was informed that the limit on car washes was one per month. Third, I was told that most of the repairs that diagnostic tests revealed should be made were really not necessary (or that I would have to wait for home-office approval before they were done). Last, when I turned in a rent receipt for garaging the car, it was implied that I should take my own car out of my one-car garage and put the company car there in its place.
Well, it didn't take me long to catch on. Now I hardly bother to get the oil changed unless some alert gas station attendant notifies me that I'm running around with less than a quart of oil. Not that the item doesn't appear on my expense account. It does. It's just that I have neither the time nor the inclination to get the oil changed. The same is true of washing the car. I collect a regular expense from the company every month; but the car is washed only three or four times a year. Not that I've more than the usual amount of larceny in my heart, or that I expect to get rich on the money the company pays me for alleged washes and oil changes. Rather, I do it because I know the fleet manager will question me if these items never appear on my expense account.
Speaking about expense accounts, some fleet managers I've talked to tell me that they know the condition of their cars by their driver's gas and oil purchases. I always find that very funny. They think they can tell the condition of a particular car by the miles-per-gallon average which they get from drivers' weekly or monthly expense records. As far as I'm concerned, that's a laugh. I say that because, if my fleet manager goes over my gas expense (and I'm sure he does), he would find that I get very good mileage on my car. Not that I really do. But it's convenient for me to have him think I do. So, perhaps I'm spending a few extra dollars out of my pocket to give him this impression. But I'd be out a lot more if I let him know that I was getting only about ten miles per gallon out of my clunker. Because if he knew that, he would have me in for servicing which could tie up my car for days. This could only mean the loss of more money in the long run for me (not to mention the company) while I was off the street.
The problem of servicing brings up another whole area that is a sore spot with anyone who needs a car to make a living. Not that any field man is inherently opposed to keeping his car in tip-top shape. But if he is committed to having his service and maintenance done by the dealer who comes in with the low bid at trade-in time, the chances are he is going to be stuck with a dealer who has poor facilities and an understaffed crew. He must make appointments well in advance and then expect to have his car laid up for several days-even if the repair work done is of a minor nature. Again, that means he is off the road and must either suffer a financial loss or make up time lost with overtime once he has wheels again.
This state of affairs, in my opinion, is again caused by the short-sighted economy programs of fleet managers. They want the lowest possible bid when they obtain a new car. What they sacrifice in obtaining it, is too often a dealer who is not equipped to service his driver's car. And woe to the driver who takes his car to another dealer for servicing! He is treated like someone with the plague. For no dealer is interested in servicing the fleet car sold by a competitor. So the luckless driver will spend just as much time waiting for his car to be fixed in this dealer's shop.
Another aspect of maintenance worth discussing is my company's policy on tire replacement. I am given a credit card for this item which allows replacement at a greatly discounted price if looks like a good deal on the surface. Unfortunately, this is not true. The credit card is for an off-brand product. When it comes time to replace tires (my company has a foolish hard-and-fast 25,000 mile rule on this) the drivers in my fleet discover that there is only one distributor of the approved replacement tires in our area. This distributor's facilities are understaffed, inconveniently located, and overcrowded. So more valuable time is lost.
My solution with regard to tire replacement is to delay it as long as possible. Since my company has another hard-and-fast rule about replacement (every 40,000 miles), if is more convenient for me to push the mileage on my original fires up to the 30,000 mile mark. Once I have pushed the mileage into this area, I am almost always certain of obtaining a new car before my established 40,000 turn-in time. The reason for this is that the fleet manager is hesitant about investing in a new set of tires when he will obtain only 10,000 miles use from them. So, chalk up an other minor victory for the crafty fleet driver.
I realize, of course, that it is a rather hollow victory for the man behind the wheel of a company car. For the new car is going to be just another characterless "cheapo" that he will take no pride in, will have trouble getting serviced, and will feel hesitant about maintaining properly. And one might well ask, what, after all your gripes, is the solution?
To begin with (at least in the case of my company) they could begin by placing more trust in the fleet driver's common sense and business sense. Since he is the man out in the field using the company car five days a week, he is the man who must have it serviced and maintained, and the man who can most accurately ascertain just when work is needed on his car. He should therefore, be given greater responsibility and leeway in purchasing and caring for it. He should be allowed to do business with the dealer of his choice when it comes to trade-in time-for he is the one who will be relying on this same dealer for follow-up servicing and maintenance as he puts long hard miles on the car. Furthermore, with regard to servicing, he should be allowed to have minor work done at convenient service stations or independent garages. It is generally impossible to obtain a fleet discount on parts when these kinds of service companies do work on a company car. But the time saved as contrasted to the few dollars saved on a part's discount often adds up to a greater saving for the driver and his company over the long haul.
Lastly, greater freedom should be allowed the fleet driver regarding the selection of the make and model of car he would prefer to drive. I can see no reason for limiting the selection of the make to two manufacturers, when it is common knowledge that all car makers have a guaranteed value program of some kind. This kind of limitation on the selection of a car often makes the fleet driver suspect that someone-the fleet manager, or someone higher up in the corporation-is getting a kick-back from the favored manufacturers.
With respect to limitations on particular models, similar freedom of choice should be given the fleet driver. I do not believe that only one model car-in most cases the two-door sedan-is the most economical car for the fleet manager to purchase. I say this because the resale value of various models varies from year to year and month to month. Seemingly, it would be far better from a trade-in standpoint for the fleet manager to have a variety of models in his fleet. For if he did have, he would not take a beating if a particular model took a nose dive on the used car market
Of course, all my suggestions would increase the administrative duties of the fleet manager. Things would not be so standardized, so neat, so compatible with orderly cost accounting. Yet I feel that such a program would give back to the fleet driver a sense of pride in his company car. It would make him want to treat it more like his own car, because in a sense if would be more like his own car.
Sophisticated techniques of EDP should be able to alleviate the added stress of processing the cost of such a personalized fleet. But nothing, short of making the fleet driver more personally involved in his car, can make up for the beating the fleet manager and his company take when just another "company car" is bid on at trade-in time.
And one last, last word. When you do finally see the light, Mr. Fleet Manager, and decide to give us automatic transmissions, radios, and air conditioning, please don't fry to con the fleet driver into accepting these added luxuries in lieu of a raise. We won't buy that. We know that if you do finally decide to up-grade your fleet car, it will be because it is the economical thing to do. We'll love you for it, and take better care of OUR car. But we still want to see a raise if we're doing our job well.