On June 21, Bonansinga, fleet management and efficiency study project manager for the State of Illinois, received the Legendary Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to the public fleet industry. The announcement was made at the Government Fleet Expo & Conference in Nashville, Tenn.
Sponsored by the National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA), the Legendary Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes one of the Public Fleet Hall of Fame inductees for their lasting contributions to the industry. Industry professionals selected the winner through online voting.
Barb Bonansinga’s start in public fleet management was anything but average. She was involved in ground-up European car restorations and was actively involved in open-wheel Formula car road racing for a number of years. Her interest in the automotive industry led her to a career at the State of Illinois fleet, where she has worked for more than 30 years.
During her time in fleet, Bonansinga has helped lead the industry toward setting best practices through her involvement in the National Conference of State Fleet Administrators (NCSFA) and the NAFA Fleet Management Association.
The Road to Illinois
Before joining fleet, she studied automotive mechanics in junior college and worked in private-sector dealerships, then moved on to a four-year university. While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Communications, Bonansinga worked in radio.
“I spent a number of years working in the NPR-affiliate public radio station at the university, producing, reporting, and broadcasting news and features, which really helped develop my written and verbal communication skills that have been helpful in my career,” she said. “When I graduated I had a couple of job offers, and one of them was to work for fleet in Illinois.”
Bonansinga started out on the shop floor in parts inventory. Over the years, she advanced to shop supervision and management for the entire fleet division, which has maintenance facilities statewide. She was responsible for managing a fleet of about 12,500 vehicles, from acquisition to disposal, for agencies including State Police, Transportation, Natural Resources, and Corrections.
“When I started as division manager, we primarily ran shops. Over the years that has evolved into a fleet management operation,” she said. “We realized the need to really manage the fleet vehicles and established some policies for accountability to the taxpayers and took a look at what vehicles are required and if they’re being used efficiently.”
She was later named deputy director of fleet, mail messenger, and surplus properyty and in December 2015, she transitioned to working as the project lead for on an ongoing fleet and state employee business transportation consulting study.
Shaping the Industry
Throughout her career, Bonansinga became involved with the industry through her leadership in associations. She served as president of NCSFA for two years and participated on the NAFA Board of Delegates as the government fleet representative. Initially, she became involved with these associations for the education and networking.
“In state government, we’re involved in setting policy, establishing the programs. We’re also responsible for ensuring agency compliance with programs,” she said. “To make sure you’re on the right course and following best practices, it’s good to attend the conferences, workshops, and seminars with various industry experts and establish a network of contacts who are not only valuable to you in your career but also oftentimes become friends for life.”
During her two terms as NCSFA president, Bonansinga helped create a strategic plan to assist the organization after the economic downturn, which kept many from traveling to NCSFA events. She also helped bring back NCSFA’s annual workshop.
“We have a very energetic Executive Committee of talented individuals with the initiative to get NCSFA back into the annual workshop business. Current President Cindy Dixon and previous Vice- President Sam Lee played a huge role in the success of these programs. We knew we had to offer people something for their membership dues that they couldn’t get elsewhere, and these workshops and webinars are tailored to government fleet management,” she said. “What fleet managers gain from attending the workshops and participating in industry trade organization activities better prepares and qualifies them to meet the challenges of their jobs.”
As a member of NAFA’s Board of Governors, she helped the organization prepare a best practices paper on fleet right-sizing. Bonansinga also wrote for Government Fleet magazine for a few years, which gave her additional opportunities to talk to others in the industry and see what was working for them.
“Participation in fleet organizations teaches you leadership skills that translate directly to your career and help you achieve other life goals,” she said.
Adapting to the Future of Fleet
Transportation is constantly changing, as is the fleet industry. Thanks to advancements in telecommunications, agencies are able to accomplish more without leaving the office. Mass transit’s role is changing in many cities and counties. Autonomous vehicles are here. The key to thriving in fleet is to keep an open mind and surround yourself with great experts, whether they are within your own organization or through networking, Bonansinga said.
“Government fleets are frequently looked at to be the incubator for new technology emerging in the market,” she said. “When I started out we were running garages. Now we’re involved in working with public officials and formulating legislation, and interacting with the media. Fleet is a very high-profile topic to a lot of taxpayers, and you’re accountable to them to use their tax dollars efficiently.”
As fleet and state employee business transportation needs evolve, communication and collaboration continue to be crucial for success. Bonansinga’s background in radio has helped her in managing staff, because she became comfortable with public speaking. She encourages fleet managers to develop their communication skills because it is necessary when establishing policies to communicate them in a way that everyone can understand and follow.
Her department recently did an exercise where fleet managers gathered to map out certain aspects of obtaining and disposing of vehicles toward the goal of process improvement. The group was looking for ways to enhance cost and operational efficiency. After going through this process, the stakeholders had a better understanding of what everyone’s responsibilities and needs were, making them more effective as a group in coming up with improved methods of tackling tasks. And the solutions had a positive impact on everyone.
Bonansinga encourages fleet managers to “utilize the expertise of everyone on your team, your staff, your leadership, customer agency staff, vendors, and those industry trade organizations available to you, such as NCSFA and NAFA, for the greatest chance of success in your fleet management career.”