With the current and upcoming retirements in the public fleet management profession and an incoming group of new fleet managers, we asked industry veterans for some tips they have for those just stepping into fleet management. Here, they share funny stories, personal experiences, mistakes, advice, and what they wish they had known in their early fleet years.
John Alley, CAFM, assistant manager, Vehicle Maintenance, King County Metro Transit, Wash.
Years in Fleet: 47
Best Advice: First, seek out those who have been in the business for a number of years. This business has a wealth of experience and knowledge, and the vast majority of people are willing to share it with others. Second, visit your customers and find out what their concerns and issues are from their perspective. The only reason you have a job is to support their requirements. Third, keep your boss informed on what your operation is doing. Sell your team and keep that five-minute elevator update rehearsed and ready to present when the opportunity presents itself. Fourth, keep yourself informed and up-to-date on what is going on in your industry. Continuing education is essential.
What I Wish I'd Known: Root cause analysis. Don't be afraid to ask the detailed "why" questions.
Frank Castro, CAFM, transportation services manager, Snohomish County Public Utility District, Wash.
Years in Fleet: 34
Best Advice: Keep your motives pure. As managers of people and mission-critical assets, every decision or recommendation should start with the following question: "What is in the best interest of the taxpayer or the rate payer?" It's easy to follow the path of least resistance and avoid making a tough decision or avoid taking an unpopular position to maintain harmony. Never let friendships, personal differences, or biases cloud your judgment.
What I Wish I'd Known: Early on in my career I sometimes second-guessed myself and may have been tentative in my approach to controversial and challenging issues. Arguably, confidence can be attributed to experience and success. But the following quote is placed in my office as reminder: "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you are absolutely right." This has been true all along, but I didn't fully realize it until I started believing it.
A Mistake to Learn From: Work hard, work extra hours if needed, but always find a balance between your job and your personal life. When I was first promoted to a management position, I knew I would have to work hard. For several years I worked long hours, extended days, evenings, and weekends, believing it was the right thing to do. I learned after experiencing health issues that I needed to find balance. Finding time to take care of my health, maintain personal relationships, and enjoy hobbies is as important as working hard. In the end everything became more enjoyable, including work.
Frederick Chun, CAFM, CPFP, fleet manager, City of Tacoma, Wash.
Years in Fleet: 24
Best Advice: Be open to new ideas and think beyond the fleet. Be educated and become knowledgeable about all other aspects of your agency's work. Fleet management is all about business management, with every business component, including finance, legal, technology, and much more. Don't be dogmatic and fleet-centric, but think about options to provide the most effective services to customers.
What I Wish I'd Known: Sometimes, you have to say no.
A Mistake to Learn From: I thought I could change people, but I can only change certain behaviors. Beyond that, they are on their own.
Paul Hanson, CAFM, director, Minnesota Dept. of Administration, Services Fleet & Surplus
Years in Fleet: 30
Best Advice: Always be careful when implementing changes to the fleet structure. You may think you are fixing a problem or doing someone a favor today, but without proper analysis of the fleet's history, the agency's culture, and future goals, you may be just kicking the problem down the road or creating a new problem that will show up later.
A Mistake to Learn From: I was approached by an automotive manufacturer to accept 15 pickup trucks at no cost for three years for a test project. I agreed, and I received e-mail updates with progress reports on anticipated delivery time, etc. Since we were to receive these pickups, I ordered less pickups off our state contract. It made sense because we would have these extras. When it came to sign the contract with the automaker to accept the vehicles, however, there were some legal differences between the state and the manufacturer. Therefore, the test project was abandoned. During this time, the fleet order cutoff date had passed. To get the pickups we needed, we had to do a quick bid from dealer stock inventory, paying more than contract prices.
A Story to Tell: I had a chronic caller a few years back who would call in about state vehicles speeding. He would never give his name or telephone number, and I didn't let him know it showed up on my caller ID. He was the type who used a lot of vulgar language about state employees in general. One day he called in about a speeding vehicle, and he gave the location and license plate number and his usual take on state employees. I later discovered that the vehicle he reported had been in the repair shop all week waiting for a transmission. The next time he called in, I told him he was making false complaints and that I wouldn't take his complaints any more. I got the usual cussing and swearing, and then he called my supervisor, who backed me up. He tried calling me a few more times but when I saw his number show up on the caller ID, I just wouldn't answer. When I left that position, I left a note by the phone that said something like this: "Don't answer this phone number unless you want to be verbally abused."
Bob Stanton, CPM, CPFP, retired director of fleet management, City of San Antonio, Texas
Years in Fleet: 38
Best Advice: During your first six months on the job, take one day a month and spend it shadowing experienced public fleet managers in your area. At the end of the six months, you'll have a broader perspective on how to define success and failure for you and the fleet. Ask pointed questions, such as: What keeps you up at night? How do you define success? What is your mission and how do you communicate it to your staff? You'll find things to emulate and to avoid. All the while, both subconsciously and consciously, you'll be formulating your long-term mission and goals.
What I Wish I'd Known: Having come from a private fleet, I wish I had had a better understanding of government financial policies and rules. I didn't recognize how far behind the curve I was until I made some bonehead mistakes.
A Mistake to Learn From: Early in my career, when I was promoted to a position of higher authority, I accepted my boss's opinions that my subordinate management staff were all worthless. I didn't form my own opinion. On my very first day on my new job, I issued pre-printed resignations to each of them. I wanted to get their attention. I learned over the next few months I had made a terrible mistake, that each manager had talents and high organizational value that had gone unrecognized. That lesson is 30 years old and I've both never forgotten and never forgiven myself for my lack of insight.
A Story to Tell: As the county's United Way coordinator, I challenged my division that if they reached 100% participation, they could shave my head. Fleet had never given at the 100% level, so I felt pretty safe. Wouldn't you know, we got our 100%. With the entire staff, some interested EMS technicians, and a local TV station gathered, I got a very close shave conducted by our most hardcore, tattoo-laden, straight-razor-wielding biker technician on the staff. I left with a bald head and several Band-Aids. Too bad it wasn't a blood drive!
Allen Mitchell, retired equipment bureau chief, Arlington County, Va.
Years in Fleet: 44
Best Advice: Immerse yourself in all the education, professional and academic, you can early in your fleet career. Seek membership and certification in one of the fleet-specific organizations such as NAFA's CAFM and the American Public Works Association's CPFP programs. Many agencies are requiring a minimum of a bachelor's degree and professional certification to qualify for employment. Management experience coupled with fleet and formal education will give you an edge.
A Mistake to Learn From: I was in the process of assembling specifications for a heavy paint striping truck. Having worked the past nine years for a private corporation where I had total say in vehicle specifications, I was pretty naïve concerning the formality of government specifications and the method of amending them. The customer and fleet crews had assembled the specifications before I started in the fleet manager position. Unfortunately, there was no truck and striper production model that exactly fit what they wanted, so we were forced into having the successful bidder make an untested prototype. It did not perform in the way work crews expected. I negotiated with the vendor to make corrections to enable the truck to work. The end-user manager took exception to the changes that I had negotiated, notifying the Purchasing Department. We had a major disagreement between Purchasing, my manager, and the end-user manager. I became well-acquainted with the purchasing rules after that!
John Trojanovich, retired equipment manager, Arizona Dept. of Transportation
Years in Fleet: 53
Best Advice: Take your time and learn first to be a good listener. Your people are your best resource. If you are new, chances are some of the staff know more than you.
A Story to Tell: In the early years, all our plow trucks had manual transmissions and we had many operational related clutch, drive line, and differential failures. It was 1972, and I had attended an Allison Transmission class and was very impressed with the DRD-HT 750 transmission. After seeing a video, I thought this was the next-generation transmission for our plow trucks that should allow the driver to pay more attention on the road and spreaders and would reduce or eliminate our clutch, driveline, and differential failures. The ADOT held an annual statewide maintenance conference, where I always volunteered to do a presentation. I called Allison Corp. and told them I wanted to do my presentation about the transmission, and they jumped right on it. They even sent me help to address questions and set up a special Hospitality Room for that evening. Now, all hell broke loose when we started our presentation, especially when I said that these should be in our next-generation plow trucks. The Allison rep told me he was going to pass on the Hospitality Room, that I could handle it. He told me he was afraid of getting tarred and feathered! The 1974 4800 Western Star plow trucks were equipped with those DRD-HT 750 Allison transmissions, and if my memory serves me right, we never lost a transmission.
David Head, retired fleet manager, Sonoma County, Calif.
Years in Fleet: 44
Best Advice: "Solve it. Solve it quickly, solve it right or wrong. If you solve it wrong, it will come back and slap you in the face, and then you can solve it right. Lying dead in the water and doing nothing is a comfortable alternative because it is without risk, but it is an absolutely fatal way to manage a business." I had this quote by Thomas Watson, founder of IBM Corporation, hanging on the wall adjacent to my desk. There are things that happen every day in this industry that require action by the fleet manager or a subordinate. Delayed action because the manager can't decide on the right action will mean certain failure. Mistakes can most often be corrected; doing nothing will only make the problem more difficult later.
What I Wish I'd Known: Just because you like your idea better than any of the others being discussed doesn't make it a good idea. Early in my career we had an opportunity to beta test our fleet management software for a major upgrade of the program. I thought it was a great idea and wanted to participate for a number of reasons. My key staff and senior manager were less than excited, but I decided we would go ahead with full participation and forced testing on everyone. The result was a train wreck. The upgrade brought down our entire network, it corrupted existing data and brought all of our processes to a stop. We had to go to a handwritten system for several days until problems could be fixed. I thought it would be easy and that I had convinced everyone it would be a good idea. In actuality, we didn't have the staff, knowledge, resources, or support to make the project work. My actions hurt my own credibility and that of the software provider, and they created internal difficulties that took years to overcome.
Robert Martinez, executive director, Support Services Bureau, New York City Police Department
Years in Fleet: 28
Best Advice: First, as a manager of people, try to understand human nature. Be aware of how to manage people effectively and correctly, including being aware of Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Second, make decisions and actions that enable you to go home with a clear head. And finally, in all cases, common sense prevails.
A Mistake to Learn From: When dealing with vendors, in certain instances, it is almost impossible not to accept propriety products (software or hardware) and other commodities. In the long run, it will mean you have to pay a premium for the duration of the use of those items, as well as paying additional funding for changes or modifications.
A Story to Tell: In 1997, I was taking a semi-conductor class in which I learned and identified the benefits of LED lighting, well before the emergency lighting companies made them available. One day, I noticed the U.S. Postal Service trucks were using LED lighting as tail/brake lights. I had a "wow" moment and realized I could reduce the amount of amperage draw on our highway patrol vehicles if I converted their multi-level lighting system to LED lighting. In order to pitch this idea, I had to offer the supervisor of Technical Services for the NYPD Fleet Services Division a steak lunch to even look at my lighting solution. After retrofitting a light bar with LED lighting, I did a demo for him, but he still was not that impressed. I then asked him, "What do you think is powering the whole light bar and the flasher?" He answered, "An automotive battery." At that point, I showed him the entire system was being powered by a 9-volt battery. That was the beginning of the NYPD's usage of LED lighting on all its department vehicles.
Alan Kies, CAFM, CPFP, equipment manager, Pierce County Public Works & Utilities, Wash.
Years in Fleet: 39
Best Advice: Get involved early with fleet associations, whether it is national or local associations. These are invaluable resources for information, and fellow fleet managers are willing to share information. Attending these types of fleet management venues will frequently put you in the same room with hundreds of years of fleet experience.
A Mistake to Learn From: Not fully realizing that many people who have a couple of personal cars consider themselves to be "experienced fleet managers."
A Story to Tell: Years ago, I was an installer of CNG system retrofits while working in a municipal fleet in California. I installed not only for own fleet but other fleets as well, so it was common to have vehicles in the shop with natural gas on board. One day we evacuated the shop because there was the smell of natural gas in the air, but after clearing everything out and not finding anything, we returned to work. Later in the day, we again smelled what we thought was natural gas and evacuated again. After doing much searching, we were astounded to find that the smell we interpreted as gas was coming from a type of snack crackers that an employee had in his lunch.
John Webster, CPFP, division director, Salt Lake County Fleet Management, Utah
Years in Fleet: 36
Best Advice: Understand your operating environment, both external and internal. Fleet managers will be impacted by myriad influences in our industry. The current state of the economy and the restructuring of the automotive industry will be key factors in the future. Increasingly stringent environmental regulations, the rising cost of fuel, alternative fuel mandates, and advanced technology vehicles will determine the types and sizes of vehicles deployed and the fuels consumed. Increased awareness of the cost of service, levels of service, equipment down time, recruiting and retention of technicians, and the aging workforce will necessitate renewed attention and planning to address these challenges.
What I Wish I'd Known: How important each and every employee is to you and the organization. Be a listener, be fair, be consistent, and mentor.
A Story to Tell: Beginning in 2005, Salt Lake County Fleet Management was under investigation for gross misconduct on a grand scale. The fleet director and others were dismissed, and the fiscal administrator was placed as the acting director while a search was conducted for a new director. The acting director was an excellent fiscal person, but she was very much at a disadvantage when it came to fleet management. I was hired that November and had to jump right in fixing excessive fund balances, replacement fund calculations, and labor costs, just to mention a few of the big issues. As she and I started to work together, it was very apparent we were not going to get along, and a true dislike started to develop. One day she went back to her boss, who was also my boss, in tears and said, "I cannot work with that man." I think she used some stronger language than that. Our boss made one of her performance goals to learn to get along with me. It worked. We were married in 2011 and have been happy ever since.
Wayne Corum, director of equipment services, City of Fort Worth
Years in Fleet: 9
Best Advice: Take the time to listen and learn how your fleet organization works in your first couple years. You need to get to know your staff and gain their support and respect prior to implementing any changes. Also, be a constant promoter of fleet and fleet expertise within your local government leadership and elected officials. Always look at your fleet organization's strengths to identify ways to distinguish your fleet from the rest of the industry.
What I Wish I'd Known: Focus on the values and ethics of the people you hire rather than the skill set. If you can get good skills with good values, that is a plus. Skills can be learned, but values come from the heart of a person.
A Mistake to Learn From: When a contract is signed with a vendor, the vendor's original proposal can be attached to the contract. The items outlined in the proposal become contractually binding unless overridden by a clause in the contract. The city entered into a contract with a parts vendor prior to me becoming the fleet manager. The contract did not specifically outline the terms of inventory transfer upon termination of the contract, but the vendor's proposal did. At termination of the contract, the city had to purchase more than $1 million in parts inventory. This was a very costly expense at the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008. Subsequent contracts have specifically outlined inventory transfer requirements and controls.
A Story to Tell: When we first tested telematics equipment five years ago, we placed a telematics unit on a service truck used by our water utility. The vehicle operators were told about the unit being applied to their vehicle. During the day, their supervisor got an alert that stated the service truck was speeding. The supervisor contacted the vehicle operator to ask him to slow down. A few minutes later, the supervisor got another alert that the vehicle was speeding even faster. When the supervisor called the vehicle operator to inquire why he was going faster, the vehicle operator stated, "We are trying to outrun you." The operator thought someone was following him with the telematics equipment!
William DeRousse, retired fleet maintenance superintendent, City of Everett & Everett Transit, Wash.
Years in Fleet: 47
Best Advice: Be honest and transparent in what you are doing. Have pride in your work and your staff.
What I Wish I'd Known: It takes years to learn the fleet management business and when you think you have a handle on everything you need to know, new regulations come out to change what we are doing and to add challenges to our daily business. Also, good customer service is extremely important and the key to fleet success.
Dennis Hogan, CAFM, CPFP, fleet manager, City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Years in Fleet: 35
Best Advice: Embrace the suck! In an Iowa National Guard class I was instructing, one of my students was presenting and she said, "I know life can sometimes suck, so all you can do is embrace the suck." That has stuck with me since then, so anytime things go way off the course I have set, I say to myself, "Embrace the suck," and I move on.
A Mistake to Learn From: Early on, I thought I could be in charge and be everyone's friend at the same time. I was given my first opportunity to run a motor pool when I was 19 years old. It was the same operation that I worked in as a mechanic, so all my new subordinates were my friends. I learned very quickly that you have got to set a behavioral standard early on and maintain it. I can associate with you at work, and I can be concerned for you and your family, but in the end I am your manager, so I have responsibilities that extend beyond our friendship.
A Story to Tell: I had just taken a position at the City of Cedar Rapids to design and build the first-ever centralized and consolidated fleet. I had just completed my presentation of what my vision and goals were for the organization to the mayor and City Council when the mayor said: "I have one question for you. What exactly is a fleet anyway, and do we have one?" I bit my tongue and very politely said, "Madam Mayor, the fleet is all of the vehicles and equipment the city owns, roughly 1,000 units." Her reply was, "OK, thank you."
Marilyn Rawlings CEM, fleet manager, Lee County Fleet Management, Fla.
Years in Fleet: 21
Best Advice: Don't be too proud to ask for help. The fleet industry has some of the greatest (and most helpful) people. They share their knowledge freely, and you can learn from their mistakes. Find people at fleet conferences and pick their brains. Also find someone locally who can mentor you and maybe even do a walkthrough of your facility. Another set of eyes is critical. If you are a seasoned fleet manager, mentor someone.
What I Wish I'd Known: Hire to your weaknesses. We tend to hire people who are like us with the same strengths. Hire people who can "fill in the blanks." If you aren't a numbers person, hire someone who is. If you aren't a "technical" type, hire someone who is. Don't be intimidated by them. Their knowledge is why you hired them. They will make your organization look good.
A Story to Tell: My funniest stories come from being a woman in what has been a "man's world" for many years. Twenty years ago, a vendor asked to speak to the "man in charge." I simply replied, "That would be me."
George Baker, director of Central Services, Volusia County, Fla.
Years in Fleet: 35
Best Advice: Be the head cheerleader for your organization. For too long I thought a support department should be unseen and unheard, in the background. Your organization needs you to be their public relations person in the agency, involved in the community, speaking to the press, networking, and partnering with elected and governmental officials. The more you can tout achievements, the more human and budgetary resources you can secure.
What I Wish I'd Known: It is paramount to develop a strategic technological plan at least five years into the future. Network with IT people, techno-geeks, etc., at fleet, public works, and green fleet events. The best way to predict the future is to create it.
A Mistake to Learn From: I should have acquired my education early on, instead of in the middle of my career, with a wife and family. If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a larger project in which Government Fleet addresses concerns about the aging fleet industry and new fleet manager education. Look for video interviews and announcements about a mentorship program on www.gfleet.com.