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Next-gen fleet manager: 'Huge opportunity' if businesses seize it

Aug. 3, 2015
Most or all of the elements needed are already in place — the trick is to pull together the information and use it in the right ways. "What we've seen when it comes to enhancing that fleet manager role is that companies aren't there yet," Meehan says.

The old mold and way of doing things for the corporate fleet manager are changing entirely, one industry insider says, and it's creating an opportunity for a new pool of applicants not traditionally associated with the job. Companies that get ahead of this curve could see less fleet down time and lower maintenance, recruitment and related costs, and other benefits.

So says Mike Meehan, vice president of sales at Fleet Advantage, a provider of business analytics software and services for fleets. According to the sales exec, businesses operating fleets can effectively scrap any past assumptions they have about who fills the fleet manager role.

"That fleet manager job was typically staffed by ex-mechanics — guys who worked in the shop or at least have a really good working knowledge of trucks," Meehan tells Fleet Owner. "That's completely gone for the fleet companies that are running their businesses based on real driving costs and knowledge."

What's happened, Meehan says, is that the "people skills" functions of the traditional fleet manager have largely shifted to HR. As he sees it, for fleets — especially large corporate ones — the next-generation fleet manager's job largely involves using data and analytics to drive more objective financial decisions.

"We've seen this elsewhere, but it's particularly acute now with fleet managers," Meehan notes. "And that position and that area are not typically staffed by people who are highly skilled in using data analytics and IT to do their job better." He says businesses should be aware of the skill set that's needed for this evolving role.

Most or all of the elements needed for fleets to tap into this potential are already in place, according to Meehan. The trick is to pull together the information and use it in the right ways.

"What we've seen when it comes to enhancing that fleet manager role is that companies aren't there yet," he adds.

All about that data

So how does a fleet get up and running with this enhanced fleet manager? "You don't need new computers," Meehan contends. "You don't need to buy anything new. You don't need some consulting firm sitting here for six months."

That's because fleets already are capturing or have available the data they need, he explains, but many just aren't applying it to their finance and budget decisions.

"Availability of data is almost universal now," Meehan says. "You can't find a fleet that's not using onboard computers in their trucks. They're capturing data, but most of them aren't doing much with it beyond driver logs, payroll and route optimization."

In working with fleets, Meehan says he'll see things like a fleet manager who's got a good handle on operating costs, for example, but knows little or nothing about truck financing.

"You can do a lot more," he says. "When we ask the traditional fleet manager, 'How many new trucks are you going to get next year?' They tell us, 'I don't know, I'll have to wait till I get my budget next year,'" Meehan continues.

"In today's environment and with the technology available, that is absolutely the tail wagging the dog."

Potential gains

The goal for businesses, Meehan says, is to make financial decisions for their fleets objectively and based on data. "If you're doing things by feel or seat of the pants or past history, you're out of the game," he tells Fleet Owner. "Those things don't apply."

Take the example of how many trucks a company should replace in its fleet at a given time. The key, says Meehan, is to get the right data into a custom algorithm — and that's where the company's fleet management system requires that capability. The algorithm factors in things like how much each truck costs to finance, how much each costs in repairs, and most importantly, how much fuel each is burning.

"Fuel is 65%-75% of my costs," Meehan says. "That's the biggie." A fleet manager can take that information and compare operating costs of older trucks against those of new trucks being cycled into the fleet.

"If I'm running my truck 100,000 mi. a year, and the old ones get 6 mpg and the new ones get 7, I can finance my new truck just with the fuel savings," Meehan says. In that example, the new trucks would require about 2,380 fewer gals. of fuel to cover the same 100,000 mi.

"At $4/gal., you should replace all 300 of your trucks. At $2.50/gal., the objective economic analysis might say you should only replace 210," Meehan explains. "With today's technology, the fleet manager can walk into the company boardroom meeting and say, 'Here's how many trucks we need to replace, here's the capital investment and here's the return on that investment.'"

What businesses may find, he contends, is "they're sitting on 200 or 300 trucks that are economically obsolete." And in the current used truck market, there might even be a gain on sale to realize by selling those older trucks.

"You can take the gain on sale, unlocking the dormant equity in your fleet," Meehan says. "You get brand-new technology that operates for less than what you had. And it takes about a nanosecond for the guy who's been trying to recruit drivers to say, 'Boy, it'd be a lot easier to recruit drivers if we had a younger fleet.'

"And oh, by the way, here's the environmental scorecard we can use in our marketing," Meehan says the next-gen fleet manager can present to management. "We just cut our fuel consumption and our carbon footprint by 'X.' All that is data-driven."

Who is the new fleet manager?

With that as the potential, there's another highlight for fleets: the pool of applicants for the new fleet manager role is a lot bigger than it used to be.

"By and large, the greatest skill that you're trying to find is the use of technology," Meehan says. "So first off, the job is open to anybody now. There's no reason anybody — black, white, Asian, man, woman, whatever — with the right skill set can't do it."

"Compared to the traditional fleet manager," he adds, "I think there's a huge opportunity there for women now in our industry."

Ellen Voie, president and CEO of the trade group Women In Trucking, agrees, and points out that she's seen this topic coming up more frequently. She says she believes women could offer additional advantages to businesses as fleet managers.

"Women bring a different perspective to the role of fleet manager which can enhance the profitability of the organization," Voie contends. "Women typically take fewer risks and have a more cautious approach to managing the fleet."

"Add to that the maternal instinct," she says, "and your driver population could feel more valued in that position" with a female fleet manager in place. Women have been shown in studies to be better than men at multi-tasking, Voie notes, "which allows us to address multiple issues in quick succession — a perfect attribute for a fleet manager."

Because of the way the next-gen fleet manager will need to be adept working with data, computers and software applications, Meehan says, the younger generations have a built-in advantage.

"I've seen it," he tells Fleet Owner. "The kids that are coming out of universities today have a baseline capability with computers and data that's light years ahead of the kids that were coming out of school 10 years ago."

"They almost wouldn't think of doing anything without saying, 'What's the technology? Where do I push the button? What's the program?'" Meehan adds. "To not be able to use technology to do their job is actually completely foreign to them. The communication — and speed of the communication — between people in the younger generations now is lightning-fast."

"They can bring that to the workplace, and they can start providing detailed, useful information in these positions that have been starved for it for years," says Meehan.

Rebranding needed

The fleet manager role could be very attractive to a range of talented college grads and young professionals — if only businesses could get the job description and terminology right.  

"First they've got to stop calling themselves the trucking industry — focus on things like logistics and analytics," Meehan suggests. "Within any organization, finance and treasury and operations all have an advantage over distribution or trucking. The minute you say truck, well, that cannot be a white-collar job, it just can't."

It's part of the perception of the job, he says, where the applicants themselves need to recognize their assumptions are outdated. "If you're a college kid with a college degree, you're probably not excited about telling people you work for a trucking company or you work in trucking," according to Meehan. 

"But things like 'I'm in the finance department' or 'I'm in the logistics and analytics department,' they'll say that all day long before they'll say, 'I'm the fleet manager,'" he says. "It sounds crazy, but that's the truth."

Things like an accounting or business education could be helpful, but Meehan points out that "it might even be someone with a liberal arts degree — maybe they took some management classes, took some literature, some of this and that, and they're well-rounded."

So the next-gen fleet manager role could bend the gaze of that grad who has the right tech, data and communications savvy but may not have much direction in applying it. And it could offer a fast-track to increasing responsibility and an important voice in a company's leadership.

"These jobs are not about standing at a desk and yelling at drivers or sitting at a desk and taking phone calls about broken-down trucks," Meehan says. "These are true analytics jobs, and in time, I think the fleet manager will become more and more a part of the senior management at a company."

"If you're looking for opportunity for advancement and big responsibility early in your career, there's nobody in your way in fleet management," he contends. "The guy who's in that job right now is the last one of his breed."

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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