FleetOwner editors interact with hundreds of fleets each year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic put unnecessary travel on hold, the editorial team began discussing which private fleets stood out among the best and deserved recognition for the annual FleetOwner Private Fleet of the Year Award.
These awards were supposed to be handed out to three fleets on the final day of the National Private Truck Council’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in Cincinnati in late April. The event was among the first of many industry gatherings canceled by pandemic concerns. Instead of honoring the work of these fleets during a ceremony at the historic Netherlands Plaza Hall of Mirrors in the Queen City, FleetOwner is honoring the top three finalists for Private Fleet of the Year on the following pages.
All three of this year’s honorees are on the 2020 FleetOwner 500: Top Private Fleets list of the largest private fleets in the U.S. The award takes into account not only the overall size of fleets but other factors to find the “best of the best.” While all three have different focuses — grocery, waste and service — the awards are about recognizing each company’s excellence in transportation, regardless of fleet size or duty cycle. Each of this year’s featured fleets have shown dedication to people and the planet. Each has worked hard and set ambitious goals to reduce fleet-wide greenhouse gas emissions. And each has put an emphasis on helping those in need and keeping workers safe while on the job.
With more than 200,000 companies operating private fleets in the U.S., these are the the top fleets that have stood out to FleetOwner editors over the past year.
WINNER: Safelite Group, based in Columbus, Ohio, had one of the biggest rises on the FleetOwner 500 list from 2019 to 2020, jumping 39 spots from No. 60 to No. 21. The fleet, which operates in all 50 states, has embraced technology and data to improve efficiency that has led to millions of dollars in operational savings and fuel. Those savings have allowed the company to grow through recent acquisitions while the technology has made the larger fleet more nimble.
FINALIST: Waste Management, based in Houston, has been focusing on sustainability for decades. The largest provider of comprehensive waste management runs the third largest private fleet in the country, serving more than 20 million customers. Roughly 45% of the company's CNG fleet, or 30% of its collection fleet, currently runs on renewable fuel, helping the company get closer to its emissions reductions goals.
FINALIST: The Kroger Family of Companies, based in Cincinnati, is one of the largest grocers in the U.S., operating more than 40 distribution centers across the country. Ranked No. 320 on the FleetOwner 500 list, Kroger has set big goals to improve fleet efficiency over the last decade and has ambitious plans for the new decade.
Safelite, the service company that gives drivers across America a clear view of the road ahead, has embraced fleet technologies of the 21st century as it became one of the fastest growing private fleets in the country. The Safelite fleet has quadrupled in size over the past 13 years and now runs the 21st largest private fleet in the U.S., jumping 39 spots on the 2020 FleetOwner 500: Top Private Fleets list of the largest private fleets in the country. It is now the largest vehicle glass repair, replacement, and recalibration company in the world, serving more than 6 million customers a year.
The Columbus, Ohio-based company runs more than 8,000 vehicles — all medium-duty vans and box trucks — many of which serve as mobile glass-repair shops driven by technicians who replace vehicle glass and provide advanced driver-assistance systems recalibration services.
It has facilities in 50 states with more than 16,000 employees. The Safelite Group, which has been in business since 1947, has three primary business operations: Safelite AutoGlass, a vehicle glass repair, replacement and recalibration services provider; Safelite Solutions, which offers fleet and insurance claims management services for vehicle glass and other claims; and Service AutoGlass, a wholesale and distribution operation. Safelite is a subsidiary of Belron.
Staying nimble as fleet grows
“Implementing telematics seven years ago was a game-changer for us to be able to better manage and monitor our fleet, increase safety, reduce miles driven, and reduce fuel consumption, and have all those data points necessary to look at trends— where we couldn’t necessarily do that in such a nimble way before,” said Erin Gilchrist, Safelite’s fleet director.
Gilchrist credits what she calls an army of employees and outside partners for making the company’s growth successful. Much of that growth has come through acquisitions, the most recent of which was Tennessee-based AutoGlass of America (AGA). This family company, co-owned by John Scharbach and his nephew Sean Holloway, was added to Safelite’s fleet in March.
“It’s truly humbling when owners put their family business in our hands,” said Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Safelite Group. “We’re honored that John and Sean trust us to continue their legacy, and we’re thrilled to bring the AGA staff into our Safelite family.”
The Safelite family is big on data: gathering data, reviewing data, and turning data into a strategy to be more efficient. This has led to initiatives, more than $8 million in savings, and reduced the fleet’s fuel consumption by more than 5 million gallons.
“Seven years ago, when we implemented telematics, we went 100%,” Gilchrist told FleetOwner. “So 100% of our assets, despite the profile — whether an operation leader or a sales leader, a vice president or technician — everyone gets telematics. And we’ve just been building on that program ever since, really seeing benefits all around our fleet.”
The safety in Safelite
Safelite has been using all that data to optimize its fleet along with constant work to increase safety and efficiency, Gilchrist said. “Maximizing the value of all that data is a continuous goal for the fleet,” she added. “Every day, month and year, we look for more efficient ways to do things.”
As the fleet director, Gilchrist said she and her staff are always thinking about drivers and data and how that plays into productivity and safety. Since embracing telematics, Gilchrist said Safelite has become more proactive by identifying potential problem drivers before there is an accident instead of analyzing why a driver was in a crash.
“Let’s prevent that all together,” she said. “That’s something we’re always working on and trying to get better at. As we get better, combining all these data points, and then telling that story that helps us be safer and more efficient.”
For a company that works to repair vehicles, its own safety is essential to Safelite. But Gilchrist doesn’t see safety as a goal. “I think that with driving, that culture of safety is a journey, and I don’t know if there’s ever a destination,” she said. “I think we just continue to realize how we can do this better.”
That attitude to always take a fresh look at operations excites Gilchrist. “We’re identifying ways that we can keep all of our associates safe and educate them in the safest work practices — whether they sit at a desk, or whether they’re driving a vehicle, or they’re working in a warehouse, no matter their job function— to bring top-of-mind safety awareness to everyone in the organization,” she said. “That’s something that’s evolving now, and I’m excited to say that.”
In May, for example, the company focused on the dangers of distracted driving. “We’ve launched a new campaign on safety,” she added. “I’m excited to see where it goes, and I’m excited that our leadership at Safelite is all-in, which is what it takes to drive a culture of safety.”
The road to efficiency
Using telematics is just one part of Safelite’s multipronged approach to increase fleet efficiency, which also includes vehicle efficiency and lightweight upfitting.
“Vehicle efficiency is the first line of defense to make sure that we are reducing our fuel consumption by the most efficient vehicle operation,” Gilchrist said. “But how do we do that when we have to carry tools and equipment, or we have to carry and deliver glass?
“It’s lightweighting those vehicles as much as possible in the upfit,” she continued. “We use aluminum versus steel and are moving to an all-aluminum body and glass rack on our box trucks to make sure that we can take out as much weight in those assets as possible to increase efficiency.”
The fleet’s growing efficiency has also come from reduced idling and less fuel consumption through engine recalibrations, Gilchrist added. In addition, Safelite has been exploring alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas and hybrid vans. But, like many fleets, Safelite is still looking for that return on investment sweet spot when it comes to alternative fuels.
Gilchrist expects battery-electric to be the inevitable alternative power for her fleet.
“We know that electric is probably where it’s headed versus compressed natural gas or LNG,” she said. “We’re starting to think about how we shift to electric if and when there are solutions that fit our needs and fit the way we work.”
Charity and community involvement
In Columbus, Saturdays mean one thing during the fall: Ohio State University football. During the 2019 college season, Safelite associates served as the Hustle and Heart Net Crew at home Buckeye football games.
The team was in charge of raising and lowering the Safelite-branded net in the north end zone for all field goal and extra point attempts. Safelite donated $500 to A Kid Again for every Buckeye extra point and field goal scored at home last season. According to its website, A Kid Again “fosters hope, happiness and healing for families raising kids with life-threatening illness through fun-filled adventures.”
Safelite is also one of just 290 employers in the U.S. that is on the 2020 Military Friendly Employers list, which recognizes organizations that provide the best job opportunities for veterans and their spouses. Safelite has made the list four of the past five years.
“Safelite met the Military Friendly standard that measures an organization’s commitment, effort, and success in creating sustainable and meaningful benefits for the military community,” Safelite senior recruiter Nate Felton said. “They look at six main categories that go through a ranking scale that reflects the extent to where organizations are regarding their military-friendly status. We exceeded the standard in all six categories.”
Safelite also supports veterans as a member of the Veteran Jobs Mission and the Ohio National Guard Employer Advisory Council and has created a coin program to recognize veteran associates, leaders, customers, candidates and other citizens.
“Safelite is a great fit for current or former members of the military due to our opportunity and advancement, culture and commitment, and support and retention that embodies the Warrior Ethos,” said Air Force veteran CJ Goins, Safelite’s value-added products and service manager.