When Lee Miller responded to a newspaper ad for a “clerk” position back in 1979, she had no clue it would lead to more than three decades with Boehringer Ingelheim — a company whose name she admittedly “couldn’t even pronounce, let alone spell” at first — and set her on a path to become one of the most actively involved and respected professionals in the fleet industry.
Now in her 33rd year with the pharmaceutical company, Miller has reached what she describes as the “pinnacle of her career” by achieving the well-deserved title of Automotive Fleet’s 2012 Professional Fleet Manager of the Year at an awards presentation April 22 in St. Louis.
Miller was one of 16 nominees selected for this year’s award, which is sponsored by Wheels Inc. and the Automotive Fleet & Leasing Association (AFLA) and recognizes an experienced and proficient fleet manager who has demonstrated special business acumen in developing and executing key management policies in all areas. As part of her award, Miller will also receive a $5,000 scholarship check, sponsored by AFLA, to bestow upon the business school of her choice.
“It’s an honor to be nominated, but to actually win is incredible,” Miller said. The achievement has been a long time coming for the five-time nominee of AF’s annual award.
“After all these years, I can’t believe I’m in this illustrious group. That’s really what it is. It’s an honor to be in the company of all the people in the past who’ve won,” Miller said upon winning. In addition to her predecessors, Miller also can’t get over the colleagues she went up against for the award, which include finalists Donna Bibbo, CAFM, CCTE, manager of Fleet & Travel for Novo Nordisk Inc.; John Dmochowsky, CAFM, sales fleet manager for Kraft Foods; and Dick Malcom, fleet administrator for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance.
“It’s just so overwhelming and humbling to be up there with Donna, Dick, and John,” Miller said. “It is hard to believe, and then you realize ‘I’ve worked so hard to get here.’ ”
‘Falling’ Into Fleet
Ending up as a fleet manager would seem an obvious career choice for someone who grew up loving cars and could identify a vehicle’s make and model just by looking at the taillights. But, for Miller, it wasn’t the job she originally applied for when she joined the company.
Undecided on what to pursue in college and not wanting her parents to have to unnecessarily pay for her college tuition, Miller worked in a bank for one year after graduating high school before she answered an ad in the Ridgefield Press newspaper.
“[Boehringer] was looking for a clerk to validate expense reporting and wanted someone with strong math skills and a banking background,” Miller recalled. She interviewed with Carl Erikson, who was the sales service manager, and his boss, Robert Page, the director of sales administration. The department employed individuals handling expense reporting, promotional and literature materials, sample control, and a mail room for the nearly 400 salespeople. Miller was hired for the clerk position, and within months, was able to prove her value to the department.
“Not knowing too much about anything makes you that much more effective in looking at things through a different set of eyes. I immediately recognized that the expense reporting system was not balancing and it wasn’t making any sense,” Miller recalled. “I brought it to the attention of management, and one thing led to another, and they realized there was some sort of revamp needed. They gave me credit for bringing it to their attention, and within a year and a half, there was a shift in the department.”
The shift in the seven-member department resulted in Miller taking over responsibilities for the woman who was handling what Miller describes as “accident services in its infant stages” and complimentary product samples.
“She shifted, and I went into her job and started to learn about accidents and insurance and supporting that. Within a year, the person who was doing fleet transferred to another position and I ‘fell’ into fleet and really didn’t know much about it,” Miller said.
When Erikson (her boss) retired in the early ’90s, Miller took over as fleet administrator and then several years later, she was promoted to fleet coordinator. Around 1995, Boehringer reorganized and she then became the manager of the sales service department.
“I was wearing the hat of fleet manager, literature and promotion distribution, I oversaw the voicemail system — basically all the things to support the sales force needed in the field,” Miller said. By 2000, it had gotten to the point where it was really too much to do both fleet and sales service.
“It was a huge job. It was very challenging and somewhat overwhelming and the decision was made by my leadership at that time to split it in half and that there would be a sales service manager and a fleet manager,” she said. “[My boss at the time] knew my passion was with fleet and that I was an expert in it.”
Fleet eventually branched off from the sales service department and has been on its own as fleet services since then.
“There is no other department like fleet in the corporation,” according to Miller, who was promoted to senior manager of fleet services last year.
Boehringer Ingelheim’s fleet became centralized in the 1990s. Fleet services now oversees vehicles operated by the company’s six subsidiary businesses located throughout the United States:
- Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals in Ridgefield, Conn.
- Boehringer Ingelheim Roxane Inc./Roxane Laboratories Inc. in Columbus, Ohio.
- Ben Venue Laboratories Inc. / Bedford Laboratories in Bedford, Ohio.
- Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. in St. Joseph, Mo.
- Boehringer Ingelheim Chemicals Inc. in Petersburg, Va.
- Boehringer Ingelheim Fremont, Inc., in Fremont, Calif.
As senior manager of fleet services, Miller manages more than 4,000 leased vehicles in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Most of the vehicles are assigned to pharmaceutical reps, with 250 units reserved for executives, and almost 400 are part of the animal health division (Vetmedica).
In this role, Miller is also responsible for vendor management and negotiation, serving as a content expert for senior leadership, policy implementation and administration, asset management, driver risk assessment, managing and executing the executive fleet program, continual review and analysis of the auto industry and current trends to determine the financial impact on the corporation, and implementation of cost savings/avoidance process improvements when appropriate.
With Miller’s fleet specialist team of two, which includes Linda Swander, and George Steiner Jr., over the past three years, fleet has been able to achieve an excess of $6.5 million in cost-savings initiatives ($4 million of which was saved in 2011) and reduce CO2 emissions by re-evaluating the vehicle selector model. Miller and her team also successfully deployed 700 additional vehicles last year.
According to Miller, Swander has been with her for 23 years now. She recruited Steiner, a colleague she knew for years from attending NAFA meetings, in 2000 as fleet coordinator after he had been laid off from Praxair.
“They are the best. They’re dedicated, hardworking, dependable, reliable — any of the vendors that come in to visit us, they know we’re a team,” Miller said of her teammates.
Maintaining successful work relationships with vendors, a practice she inherited from watching her father while growing up, is also key to the fleet’s success.
“My dad was a big influence on me and he had so many friends over the years that were not just business partners, but they became friends of the family,” Miller said, noting he passed away three years ago and would be “very proud” of her accomplishments. Although her dad was in international sales for a ball bearing company, she said there are many similarities between the industries.
“I don’t sell anything, but the partnerships over that amount of time never go away. These are for a lifetime,” Miller said, referring to fleet as a “special family.”
Miller also works with a purchasing partner, Richard Preterotti, whom she regards as one of “the most talented negotiators” and an “admirable mentor.” Together, they partner on ways to save money and come up with cost-savings strategies and challenge one another to do what’s best for the company. “For the past five to seven years, I can say there is true collaboration,” she said.
One cost-saving strategy in place is performing a comprehensive total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis. “We were one of the first fleets to downsize to sedans and the majority of our sales vehicles are four-cylinder,” Miller said. “Additionally, we offer an all-wheel-drive vehicle across the board, so there’s no concern about Snow Belt exceptions because we are offering the most cost-effective vehicles.”
Miller also noted she is not a proponent of sole sourcing and prefers to use a variety of makes and models. “My job is to mitigate risk, acquire vehicles in a timely manner, and obtain the best resale value. I’m not big on jumping into something just for the sake of it. I take a more calculated, eyes-wide-open approach,” she explained.
Placing importance on relationships also extends to vendors and drivers. Boehringer Ingelheim has been a Wheels Inc. client since 2001 and Miller credits the fleet management company (FMC) with “stepping up to the plate and helping us during a very aggressive expansion” after Boehringer ended its long-standing partnership with its former FMC.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Jim Frank,” Miller said of the Wheels president. According to Miller, Wheels has “a lot of history with the pharmaceutical companies,” which is one of the many reasons why it was selected.
For accident management services, Boehringer has been working with Fleet Response since 1989, a partnership that originally started out with just obtaining some rental vehicles, Miller said, noting the company has received good reviews from Boehringer drivers. One employee who recently suffered an injury while driving told Miller she “felt like she was completely taken care of.”
Miller provides input to these vendors by participating in the Wheels Inc. Steering Council and the Fleet Response Advisory Board. “Being asked to be on a client advisory board is such an honor. You are able to provide important strategic input on future products and services and steer them in a direction to make everyone more successful,” she said.
Miller strongly encourages other fleet managers to really get involved with vendors in order to keep improving operations. “My vendors know I’m not shy about letting them know if something’s wrong. If they don’t know, they can’t fix it. I love to know I helped their business improve,” she said.
Although Miller is now a seasoned veteran, having held several leadership positions in NAFA and AFLA over the years and serving on several client advisory boards, it took a few years before she really started getting involved in the fleet industry.
“I was so young, and I was female, and I was going to NAFA meetings the first couple years and I felt really out of place. I was the new kid in the crowd. So I pulled back (in the late ’80s) and then got back into it, and really haven’t looked back since,” she said.
Miller has been a NAFA member for 23 years, holding several positions, including chapter chair, vice chair, and secretary. She also serves on AFLA’s Commercial Sounding Board, Conference Committee, and was a past secretary for the association.
Her active involvement in the industry has helped Miller become recognized as an expert in her field — and an asset to Boehringer Ingelheim. “I think, because I have been in the industry so long, [my leadership] allows me do what I need to do and I have the company’s full support. We continually come back with cost savings and new ideas. I do what I need to and get the job done,” Miller explained.
Although Miller has had several different bosses over the course of her 33 years with the company, senior leadership has not changed quite as frequently, which has definitely helped her to maintain credibility in her role. “Over the years, I do feel assured that there’s a trust and confidence in my abilities. They definitely rely on me as the content expert for fleet, and there’s no question that if they want to understand more or be better informed or benchmark our competitors, I know how to get the answers, I respond to them quickly, and I come through with what they need to make informed decisions,” Miller said.
Miller participates in benchmarking workshops with other pharmaceutical companies to help keep her up-to-date on best practices. Listening to feedback from her peers in similar operations has been a beneficial experience. While commercial fleets must stay competitive and keep proprietary information private, “no one is afraid to ask questions and get feedback. There’s a respect for each other because we know we all want to improve our operations,” she said.
Satisfying the Customer
With the majority of its vehicles assigned to the sales force, these drivers are a huge priority for Miller and her team. She’s relieved to say that in 33 years, there has never been a fatality.
“We make sure they have the proper tool, in this case the vehicle, so that they can perform their daily activities in an efficient and effective manner,” Miller explained.
According to Miller, she and her team have always been hands-on, and go that extra mile to make sure drivers are taken care of. One of her steadfast rules is to always pick up the phone during the day. Although calls are outsourced to its FMC, Wheels, Miller said she always picks up the phone if possible in case drivers do call with any issues.
“We’re there for our drivers. They’re the bread and butter of our organization, if they are calling in, they need help” she said.
Miller has also produced three vehicle selector “commercials” and videos for drivers and last year kicked off a presentation at an animal health division sales meeting with a music video. The drivers expressed their appreciation for making the visit and for their efforts. “They said, ‘you and your team really understand our needs’,” Miller recalled.
Focusing on the Future
One of Miller’s goals she hopes to achieve before the end of her fleet career is to improve the global aspects of Boehringer’s operations.
“I’d like to take a globalized approach to our fleet and create a workshop or some kind of summit to find out the challenges with all our global counterparts (Europe, Brazil, etc.),” Miller said. “I have strong opinions of what we could be doing better to get more bang for the buck,” she said.
She would also like to have more of a team approach in order to improve Boehringer’s global fleet operations. “This is the ‘dragon’ I’d like to slay,” she remarked.
Family has been an important factor in Miller’s successful career. From gaining inspiration from her dad’s work ethic; to her mother, a retired high school English teacher and published author; to the tremendous support she gets from her wonderful husband of 10 years, Ken; her son, Michael; and her two stepsons, Aaron and Noah; to her “fleet family,” there’s no shortage of people behind her to keep her going strong.
“I’ve said it before. You cannot do this by yourself. You have to have a team; you have to have the partners, the vendors, your colleagues, fellow fleet managers — that’s how I got to where I am is with all their help and support,” Miller said.
After all these years in her career, Miller said she can’t help but feel so blessed. “I am so honored and happy. It was meant to be,” she said.