In today’s fleet management environment, the prolonged period of decreased funding is creating evolutionary pressures that will change the fleet manager function. There is historical precedence in making the claim that decreased funding will be the catalyst for change in fleet management.
The changing role of the public sector fleet manager over the past 30 years can be traced back to the privatization trends that emerged in the early 1980s during the Reagan Administration. The elimination of federal revenue sharing caused budgetary shortfalls as the flow of federal monies to states and localities slowed markedly. This prompted many governmental entities to reassess how they were providing fleet management and other support services to internal user groups. One consequence was the implementation of a user-chargeback system. This caused an evolutionary change in fleet management responsibilities. By charging fleet users for services, it prompted fleet managers to increase attention to service quality and cost. Increasingly, fleet managers began to view themselves as managers of business services.
“The implementation of chargeback systems started the evolution toward professional fleet managers. No longer was the best mechanic skilled enough to be the fleet manager, as had previously been the case,” said Bob Stanton, director of fleet management for the City of San Antonio. “As the fleet began to generate revenue, it had to begin to operate as a business. This started the evolution from maintenance manager to fleet professional.”
Likewise, today’s limited funding is causing further evolutionary change by forcing job consolidation, especially at smaller political subdivisions. Limited funding is increasing pressure to combine fleet with “like” functions. As a result, a growing number of fleet managers are assuming additional job responsibilities, such as facility management, which are viewed as complementary to their fleet responsibilities. One example is at the Illinois Tollway. “Fleet has been given the responsibility of job tasks that we would have never had in the past,” said Tom Deldin, fleet manager for Illinois Tollway. “As an example, our Fleet Division is now responsible for the sale and disposal of all agency surplus assets and commodities for all departments.”
Greater Separation from the Shop Floor
The trend toward privatization was another catalyst that is changing the role of the fleet manager. “The move to privatization accelerated the evolution of the fleet function. Fleet managers, and even upper management, began to realize that to survive, they needed data, knowledge, skills, and talents far beyond that of the maintenance manager,” said Stanton.
As a result of this evolutionary change, there has been a steadily improving perception of many fleet managers, who have a significantly higher public profile than their predecessors. A good example is the City of Austin, Texas. “The perceptions of fleet management have changed from the proverbial shade tree mechanic to one synonymous with high technology and professional management,” said Gerry Calk, fleet officer for the City of Austin.
A key factor facilitating this change has been the widespread integration of sophisticated fleet management systems into almost all fleet operations. This has caused the jobs of many fleet managers to become more removed from the shop floor, with more emphasis on strategic thinking, planning, and management. “I see fleet managers becoming more analytical, as we have picked the low-hanging fruit, and we need to drill down deeper to find more opportunities for savings,” said J.D. Schulte, fleet manager for the City of Moline, Ill. “Nowadays, I only go to the shop floor a few times a day, not to make decisions, but to take a breather from my duties in the office. I communicate with my team in goals and objectives rather than micro-managing front-line decisions.”
Expanding the Concept of Fleet Management
Another evolutionary change is the expanded concept of fleet management. “Our job has completely changed from maintenance management to asset management,” said Stanton. “Asset management — personnel and equipment — has so many more facets, such as personnel, finance, and long-term planning. Today, more than ever before, to succeed, a fleet manager must have so many more skills that have nothing to do with fleet.”
Another change agent, according to Calk, will be compliance with increasingly stringent environmental regulations. “The strategic planning and the sheer number of decisions and choices we are required to make on a regular basis grows exponentially as we move into an ever more environmentally conscious future. Changes in technology and alternative fuels, and in the geopolitical energy landscape, are driving an ever-increasing rate of change,” said Calk. “I believe this drives changes in the fleet manager’s world every bit as much as tightening budgets and political considerations.”
Increasingly, a fleet manager’s job will focus less on the metal and more on analytics and people management.
“The fleet manager position is morphing into more staff development and empowerment, analysis of key performance indicators and enhancing performance, continuous improvement of customer service, forming and maintaining strategic partnerships, instilling a safety culture, and furthering continuous sustainability initiatives,” said Allen Mitchell, chief, equipment bureau, Department of Environmental Services (DES) Operations for Arlington County, Va.
In the future, the hallmark of good fleet management will be the ability to manage change. “One of the most important virtues a fleet manager must possess is the ability to adjust, adapt, and overcome,” said Art Hale, state fleet manager of energy & environmental sustainability for the State of Colorado. “With rapidly changing technologies, the ability to adjust, adapt, and overcome will be essential to successful fleet management disciplines.”
Using a sports analogy, simply maintaining the status quo in the future will be akin to sitting still, which, eventually, will get you cut from the team.