Charter Communications Senior Director of Fleet George Survant was named the AF Professional Fleet Manager of the Year for 2016. Survant received his award, which is presented by Automotive Fleet magazine and sponsored by Wheels Inc. and the Automotive Fleet & Leasing Association (AFLA), during AFLA’s annual conference, which was held in San Diego.
Eligible recipients of the award are full-time commercial fleet managers who control a company-owned or leased fleet in excess of 100 cars and light trucks combined. The award winner is chosen by an industry panel made up of past winners, FMC and OEM executives, and the media. As part of the award AFLA provides a $5,000 scholarship that is awarded to a business program of the winner’s choosing.
Survant is currently responsible for fleet strategy at Charter Communications in Charlotte, N.C. He became part of Charter Communications when the company purchased Time Warner Communications earlier this year. He joined Time Warner four years ago, and has been in the fleet industry for 40 years.
Combining Fleet Operations
Joining Charter Communications through its purchase of Time Warner Cable and Charter’s additional purchase of Florida’s Bright House Networks has thrust Survant into the role of fleet integrator.
Survant and his counterparts with the legacy fleets at Charter and Bright House are in the process of the combining the fleets into a single 36,700-vehicle operating unit comprised of 20,000 cargo vans, 7,400 pickup trucks, 5,000 aerial trucks, 2,000 SUVs, 350 sedans, 200 heavy-duty trucks, and 90 passenger vans.
One of the key aspects of merging of the fleets is combining their accounting and other administrative systems and processes. On the operational side, the integration is likely to be relatively seamless since all three fleets used ARI as their fleet management company and WEX as their fuel card provider.
Witness to Change
Since entering the fleet industry, Survant has witnessed its evolution from a field dominated by what he calls “legacy behavior” to one marked by sophisticated, technologically oriented practices.
“When I started in this business, the ability to effectively track, measure, and change or improve equipment reliability didn’t exist. Just about the only tools you had was to buy a larger percentage of new equipment,” he said. “Whereas today we have some very, very sophisticated tools to measure and manage equipment reliability, and we have a whole host of new strategies to improve that reliability that go beyond the simple let’s-replace-it-now thinking that was prevalent 10 years ago.”
When Survant started in fleet, it was common to cycle out vans at seven years and 70,000 miles.
“Today, we think those are unnecessarily quick in terms of replacement cycles in that we still like the seven to eight years for a van, for example, but we are considerably closer to 150,000 miles for lifetime mileage,” he said. “And that’s the function of the fact that the products we’re buying are much better than they were.”
The ability to gather data from vehicles and the improvement in vehicle quality over the years have been two of the biggest game changers for fleets, according to Survant.
“Those are huge changes in our environment,” he said. “And we’re seeing a whole new generation of leaders and practitioners in the fleet management world that are really growing into a much greater level of sophistication with these tools. So it’s a pretty exciting time to be in the industry.”
Survant entered fleet at the dawn of the personal computing era, and has seen this technology transform the way fleets operate.
He has also pioneered alternative-fuel technology for the fleets he has managed.
“Over the course of my career I have had extensive alt-fuel experience,” he said. “I ran a pilot DOE Electric Vehicle Program in the early 1980s, so I have extensive experience with this. At San Diego Gas and Electric, I had nearly 1,000 compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. At GTE in Los Angeles, we had methane fueled vehicles — which is a fairly rare type of fuel in this day and age — and propane autogas, at a number of different locations at different times. So, while having broad experience base with that, we really approach this in a very different way than we did even five years ago. As our thinking about alternative fuel has evolved, our focus today is to burn less fuel. That’s the central watch word.”
Survant added he never adopts technology for its own sake. It needs to fit the needs of his stakeholders.
“Ultimately, I have three stakeholders that I have to be focused on in a broader context for every decision,” he observed. “The first stakeholder, of course, is the Charter retail customer. That’s got to be our first and abiding interest. And any decision I make as a fleet operator that might inhibit our ability to respond quickly and effectively and reliably under a huge array of conditions would not be the best decision for our customers. The second stakeholder group is, of course, the shareholders who’ve invested their money and entrusted it to Charter to give them a good and stable return on investment. And then the third group of stakeholders, who, in our eyes, are as important as the other two, are the people that spend eight, nine hours a day in those trucks, the drivers and supervisors that actually use our product each and every day. So we look through that lens at every decision we make.”
This focus ultimately informs every decision Survant and the other fleet leaders at Charter make.
“We tailor our solutions set to the practical realities of the opportunities we have in the marketplace through that lens of those three key stakeholders,” he said. “Translated to real work in the fleet world, what that means is that our trucks are low-density, high-volume material carriers. Typically, our loads don’t approach maximal loads on our trucks, except for our employees who are in very remote areas and had to carry two-and-a-half weeks’ worth to stock on board.”
Survant is also careful to look beyond tomorrow when implementing a vehicle or other technological solution.
“We are not going to invest in a technology that doesn’t have the realistic expectation of surviving the lifetime of a service truck in North America that we would keep in service as long as we do,” he said. “So it’s not tomorrow’s decision, it’s not next year’s decision, but it’s actually a decision for how effective will that truck or pickup or van be, six or seven years from now.”
Getting into Fleet
Raised in Kentucky, Survant left home at a young age and was eventually drafted into the U.S. Army where he was trained and worked in communications. After his discharge he went to work for the telephone company, attending night classes at the University of Kentucky where he eventually received a bachelor of arts degree in business management with a minor in mathematics.
“The combination of those two things has actually proved to be extraordinarily useful in my fleet career,” he said. “In later years, I was fortunate to work for a company that believed in Six Sigma, and I got extensive Six Sigma training. And of course all that math background sort of gelled with that, and with the way that we now automate so much of our work.”
Survant moved into a fleet position at a large telecommunications company where he was working after turning around a unit that had some “significant performance challenges.” After successfully turning the unit around, a fleet position opened up requiring solving some of the same performance issues, and Survant has been in fleet ever since.
He later worked for a Florida Power & Light (FPL), and eventually segued back into communications fleets landing at Time Warner Communications.
Rewards and Challenges
If there’s a theme to Survant’s career, it would be problem solving, which started in his first fleet position turning a faltering unit around to his current task as part of the team responsible for merging three fleets into one.
While Survant has experienced numerous successes, he said there are three perennial challenges that he has experienced.
“One is finding ways to get the very best effort out of your team on a consistent basis. Sustained excellence is always a challenge. Continuous improvement is always a challenge,” he said. “Another big challenge is that as the economic environment fluxes or flexes, there are years where the economy doesn’t really allow you to make as much investment into your fleet as you’d like, or that circumstances of the industry you’re in vary. And then the final challenge that I’ve seen on more than one occasion is, as you get a new management team, they very often have their own perspective and their own experience with vehicles, and so it’s really how long it’s going to take to get through the learning curve, and help them develop the trust in the team and the direction of the team so that they are actively engaged in supporting their best efforts across the board.”
Survant has a hands-on approach to managing, finding the right person to build a strong team that works in harmony with one another.
“I would prefer to think of myself when I’m really doing the right thing is being a conductor of an orchestra and that my job is to get the right portions of the organization deployed at the right moment. Timing, inflection, emphasis those are roles that I find really appealing. And so while I’m certainly always in search of improvement, that’s at least what I’m focused on doing,” he said. “I like to find really talented and energetic people, and I’m a whole lot more comfortable with the more collaborative style. I like to listen to input, a lot of different inputs. And while I am certainly clearly opinionated, and anybody who knows me will tell you that, I typically look forward to an opportunity to be persuaded to see things in a different way.”
While Survant can point to numerous accomplishments in his long fleet career, by his own account, his biggest one is a reflection of his personal leadership style.
“The single most rewarding thing that I have had happen to me — and it’s happened time and time again — is to have an employee come up to me at some point in their career, sometime after they’ve worked for me, sometimes years later and say, ‘You made a huge difference in my life.’ And that’s probably the single most rewarding thing I ever get a chance to experience,” he said.
Survant has not only influenced those he’s worked with, he has served the industry as a whole.
He has been active in a number of fleet organizations, including as the past chair for the FPL PAC Trustees, Electric Utility Fleet Managers Conference (EUFMC), and the CalStart Board of Directors. He has also served on several OEM advisory boards and is the past chair of the Hybrid Truck Users Forum (HTUF) Utility Fleet Hybrid Development Team.
He has received numerous industry honors, including the National Safety Council Fleet Award, the NAFA Green Fleet Award, the Sustainable Florida Award, the Blue Sky Award for Leadership, the Vocational Fleet of the Year award, the Eye for Innovation Award from the Biodiesel Board, and a NAFA Fleet Excellence Award for Fleet Sustainability.
Perhaps Survant’s most unique accomplishments are the two patents he helped to develop.
The first was born out of a tragedy when Survant was working at Florida Power & Light. A worker was killed in a boom accident, and, collaborating with several colleagues at Florida Power & Light, including Glenn Martin, developed a way to predict boom failures called to avoid the type of accident that caused the fatality at Florida Power and Light.
The second patent was developed with Claude Masters and Alan Smith and is a self-powered device that accurately measures how much fuel is in a mobile supply tank of a fuel truck.
Survant sees his industry involvement and contributions as a matter of course.
“I had a good friend that was an enormously accomplished guy in the newspaper business, he said, ‘You can be a part of the effort to make a positive change, or you can stand up to one side and complain about it.’ And that really has driven a lot of my volunteer activity. If I want things to change it will be because I got engaged,” Survant said.