Another bout of laughter comes through the computer screen as the conversation moves from questions to poking fun at each other. A minute later it’s followed by an earnest discussion about pride in the work being accomplished. That’s how the exchange goes during a video meeting with members of the Raleigh, North Carolina, fleet team — its camaraderie mixed with a love for what they do, qualities that brought them to the number one spot for Government Fleet’s Leading Fleets.
Creating a Leading Culture from Within
As Fleet Operations Manager Rick Longobart pointed out, Raleigh may have state-of-the-art facilities, but a change of culture and leadership has propelled them to success.
“We've given people the freedom and the luxury to make decisions that they think are in the best interest of the city and their work group,” Longobart said. “And so, we've progressively worked as a team to outline some of the things that we need to accomplish, whether it's procurement through Advance Auto or having a turn-key solution to moving forward.”
A new fleet management information system is among the list of advancements the team credits for positive change. Add that on top of the way the team communicates with customers, setting benchmarks, and allowing staff the freedom to accomplish each job independently. These equal parts are total to the standard operating procedure allowing the Raleigh fleet to accelerate the work that needs to be done.
“We had a great foundation of what kind of things we were looking for and things we should strive for as a fleet, just fleet business practices,” said Victor Avila, Assistant Fleet Manager and an ASE Master Automobile Technician, Master Medium/Heavy Truck Technician, and Master Truck Equipment Technician who was recently promoted to Assistant Fleet Manager from superintendent. “But we were always thinking … how can we improve and use the talents and skills of folks that think outside the box? I think it's just a different management style that allows us to use our talents and skills to push it to the next level.”
Fleet Maintenance Superintendent Bradley Norton, who holds 12 current ASE certifications and two APWA certificates, pointed out that one of the aspects that he’s seen ramp up over the last year, specifically the last two to three years, is community engagement, including job fairs that they are doing in collaboration with community colleges and high schools. They’ve also partnered with the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center to have ride-and-drive events to further bolster clean energy initiatives.
With these strides toward doing more, the Raleigh team has become an established resource for other fleets looking for ways to improve. The team will routinely receive calls from around the state to learn about their projects.
“We’ve become a leader in the state with smaller municipalities that don't have the answers and solutions that we do,” Norton said. “We've been able to provide assistance, advice, even equipment, we've even done some permanent sales to municipalities that just don't have the resources that we do.”
As for Raleigh’s claim to fame, that could be put in what the team likes to call “people before projects.”
As Longobart put it, the fleet can have the technology and all the latest equipment, but it’s the people behind the mission that truly matter. He noted that they strive to celebrate life events, from anniversaries to baby showers, regularly. They also work to promote from within, with a large portion of the employees having already been employed in different capacities.
Dakota Wendling, who was recently promoted to Fleet Maintenance Operations Supervisor, worked as a mechanic for the city for five years. A Ford Master Technician who is equipped with all 30 Cummins certificates, he’s seen firsthand how collaboration has shaped the fleet noting that it’s the team-centered mentality that has enabled them to meet objectives.
“You’ve got to work as a team, it’s a team effort,” he said. “It’s not just individually based.”
Overcoming Challenges and Implementing Change
While the Raleigh fleet has found a steady rhythm in the day-to-day operations, it wasn’t always so easy. Longobart said that when he first came on board the team struggled with procurement. Blanket purchase orders were not a common part of operations, and they would have to write a requisition for every widget that was bought. This in turn caused frustration as parts weren’t coming in on time and there was a struggle paying bills and using credit cards.
“It was a real challenge because we couldn't successfully get vehicles back on the road,” Longobart said.
Fleet leadership was able to put together a strategy: they sought out a company that could work with staff to manage parts procurement. And so, rather than having an overload of requisitions each week, they were able to have one vendor delegated as a turn-key solution to work side by side with parts staff to handle all the purchasing. Now, Raleigh manages a single contract with one parts distributor, instead of hundreds of individual PO’s.
Wendling, noted that a major frustration for technicians is working on a vehicle and then not being able to get parts in time resulting in the bay being down along with productivity. Wendling, who spent five years as a technician with the city, said he’s hopeful that the Advance Auto Parts contract will resolve this issue.
“Not only has it affected us, but it’s also affected our stakeholders, who are our customers,” Longobart said. “We have shortened the workload of procurement because now we’re not having to do all these requisitions.”
For Longobart and the team, it’s just another way to work toward improvement and being more efficient. And the team understands that challenges are a part of the everyday job. It’s how they overcome them that matters.
“We've overcome a lot of those challenges because we've really scrutinized every work unit and how we do business. If something isn’t working for us, we try to find a way to solve it,” Longobart said. “We want to be empowering people and give them the ability to scrutinize things that aren’t working and come up with a solution…people really are the essence of making the fleet as successful as we are today.”
Bringing in Talent Post-COVID
The vacancy rate, specifically fiscal years 2022-2023, is another area Raleigh has strengthened. Post-COVID the fleet saw a rise in open positions. At the start of the year, Avila estimates the vacancy rate was around 20%, mainly due to retirements. Not only did the fleet have vacancies, but they weren't getting very many applicants.
“It was a good time for us to regroup as an internal organization and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing, what can we do better?’” Avila explained.
Leadership did a full sweep of what could be changed to bolster applications. This included making sure job descriptions weren’t using typical government jargon that applicants wouldn’t recognize. Language was added to make the job descriptions more relevant to what the position entitled with a focus on applicants getting to use their talents to serve the community.
Once the job positions were ready, it was then time to find the best places to post them. This included external organizations such as the APWA, military installations, high schools, and colleges. The job listings were posted to social platforms that included Facebook and LinkedIn.
However, leadership felt they could still do more. They went to job fairs, community events, and holiday events. Visits became opportunities for educating students about Raleigh as a city and the different departments, not just the fleet.
“A lot of those things really helped us bring in talent,” Avila said. “We've hired a lot of high-quality forward-thinking staff. And we're very proud of that.”
Something that the team noticed was that positions for diesel technicians or heavy equipment technicians weren't getting very many applicants, but the preventative maintenance (PM) technician and light repair positions were getting plenty of applicants. So, they started targeting some internal candidates for promotion. One technician went from a PM tech to light vehicle tech and promoted again to diesel technician within six months.
“That's given us a channel to start developing these employees, these technicians, at an entry-level position,” Norton said. “We have at least two who came in as entry-level employees and now they're at the top of our technical food chain, per se.”
As of writing, the city reported that the vacancy rate has now dropped below a 10% vacancy rate.
The city also looks at data that shows how long it takes to bring on a new employee and how long each part of the hiring process takes. Avila said that by doing this they are working to improve the hiring process.
“We're continuously looking at data to help us drive our decisions,” Avila said.
Looking to the Future for the Fleet
One of Raleigh’s big goals at the moment is to receive an ASE Blue Seal recognition. To work toward that goal, the fleet has enacted what they are calling the ‘Blue Seal Blitz.’ This consists of raffling off tools for technicians when they gain ASE certifications and each time, they pass a test. According to Avila, who is only two certifications away from becoming an ASE World Class Technician, this program has resulted in a drastic increase in the number of ASE-certified technicians.
The fleet is also focused on using technology for their motor pool system. They are working with the Solid Waste Services Department for a digital pre- and post-trip solution to get rid of an older paper system.
Previously, the motor pool was tethered to a key box. People would make a reservation online, go to the key box, get the key out of the box, go to the vehicle, and then drive the vehicle. When it was time to return the vehicle, the process was done in reverse.
To streamline the process, the fleet switched to a wireless, keyless Bluetooth solution that no longer requires a key box manager. Now all that is needed is a web-enabled device to allow for reservations made through a mobile or tablet device that then allows the vehicle to be unlocked through the web-enabled device, and there is no key needed. Plus, it provides additional security as the vehicle won’t start unless there is a recognized reservation.
Because this new procedure doesn't tether drivers to a key box, the motor pool solution can be anywhere. A vehicle can now be picked up in one location and dropped off in another. Longobart explained that this has helped with encouraging people to share vehicles over single-owner occupancy.
Then there’s the Electric Vehicle Implementation Strategy Rollout that is set to roll out during the next 10 years to eventually replace the entire fleet to electrification. The fleet is currently going through a consulting company that is commencing in December 2023. This will be the fleet’s roadmap moving forward. Part of the change means looking at not only the technology and vehicles that will change the entire operation but the technicians and the protocols of how to fix these vehicles.
Longobart said they’ve not got to look at salary level changing to match the type of work being done; the whole dynamic of the shop may change because they may need fewer vehicles.
“We're doing a lot of planning,” Avila said. “We want to continue to push that envelope of employee engagement and helping our team members find joy in what they do, being passionate about their role in how they serve the community. We’re continuing to push that and making that a point.”
That drive has also changed the perspective on how the fleet is viewed from the outside, according to Norton who noted that fleet is often looked at as a liability as it doesn’t generate revenue.
“I don't think that we're looked at as a liability at this point; I think we're looked at as a solution finder,” Norton said. “We do the obvious things — we buy the equipment, we maintain it and we sell it — but we truly coach and mentor our departments on how to utilize that equipment more efficiently, both in fuel and maintenance and just the broad spectrum. Here with the city of Raleigh, we're not a liability, we're absolutely an asset.”
A Unified Front and a Reason to Celebrate
When Norton, Longobart, and Wendling flew to Dallas for GFX the three of them met the night before for dinner. They brought with them the same desire: to be better than 10th place.
The Honors Celebration rolled around and as the fleet names were called out and the number 10 spot was named, then the ninth, then eighth, the team was a mix of nerves and excitement. Longobart remembers looking over at Wendling and thinking he looked “like a kid in a candy store” and seeing that now Norton was turning pale. Everyone was, quite literally, on the edge of their seats.
“And the number one Leading Fleet is…Raleigh!”
The excitement of the team was audible that night and brought a crackling energy that could only be the result of hard work and fortitude. It’s something that circles back to what the fleet keeps at the center of what they do: the people.
And as the team came onstage to accept the award, Norton stepped up to the podium and summed it up for everyone in attendance: "All I can say is our men and women do the work, we tell the story."