In many ways, stepping into the role of fleet manager isn’t unlike any other management role out there.
It’s all about deciding what kind of manager you hope to be. This is something Derek Masquelier spends a lot of time pondering. He’s been the fleet manager for the City of Easley, S.C., going on close to a year.
His advice for new fleet managers is, “First and foremost, figure out who you are as a manager and where you want to lead your shop and workers.” He added, “Your people are the most valuable resource that you have. Without them, there is no shop or fleet to manage.”
In Masquelier’s previous job, his managers were required to write a personal leadership philosophy, and they were expected to update it regularly. He thinks this helps folks “come to terms” with the type of leader they aspire to be.
“I encourage new managers to write down their philosophy. It will really give you a direction and a goal to target,” he said.
Masquelier feels fortunate that he’s had the opportunity “to sit in many conferences and leadership programs over the years, and that helped me mold my style and outlook on not only the manager that I want to be but also the person that I want to become.”
Allison Cohen, fleet services manager in Culver City, Calif., believes it’s important to share a concrete vision with the team early on.
When she was chosen to lead the fleet in 2019 after an internal promotion, she needed to convey what she had in mind for the team to accomplish.
“New fleet managers should communicate their goals and ideas with staff early and encourage them to do the same,” she said. “Keep them informed of the strategic decisions and news, even if it doesn’t affect their day-to-day. It helps keep everyone reminded of the fleet’s role in the bigger picture.”
Because Cohen was already familiar with many of the department processes, she was “excited to use the new position to add my experience and leadership style to make changes.”
First Things First: Focus on Budget
Once the team knows your broader vision, there are the logistics of owning the role — with confidence and competence, fleet managers say.
One of the most crucial parts of the job will be sticking to the budget that has been allocated for the fleet division’s use.
Jeffrey Tews, CPFP, fleet services manager in Milwaukee, has been in his job for 12 years. During his tenure, he’s learned how to assess the financial framework of his operations.
The secret for him? Vigilance.
His advice is “watch your monthly or periodic reports, [and] compare them with past years to try and predict the peaks and valleys.”
Make decisions based on solid data, Tews recommended. “Should we spend thousands on a new engine for a 12-year-old truck? Probably not, but that decision could be reversed by many factors, such as need, the specialty of the truck’s purpose, or the uncertainty of replacement funding.”
Tews said there are absolutely areas for cost savings that he didn’t instinctively know about on day one, but rather learned on the job. “It takes a while to learn the ropes, but you will get to a point where you can innovate and make changes for the better,” he said.
According to Tews, “Small changes you make in standard procedures can have big long-term effects on operating costs. Don’t hesitate to question how things are being done, instead of accepting the old tagline, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’”
Indeed, Cohen said that “regular financial reporting helps with controlling the budget.”
She considers herself fortunate to have come into the role with a “solid base in budgets, financials, grants, project management, and analysis.”
One effective way to manage her budget, she’s found, is “weighing the total cost of developing in-house talent versus outsourcing repairs.”
Jonathan Ford, CAFM, fleet manager with the City of Orlando, Fla., noted that communicating with the budget analyst is key, as are strategic planning and referencing the previous year’s budget.
And for Masquelier, simplification has helped him manage costs.
“When I first arrived at the city, we were procuring parts from all sorts of locations and vendors and having to travel to pick up the parts we needed,” he said. “It’s hard to keep up with a repair budget when you are spending money at so many places, not to mention calculating technician time to retrieve said parts.”
He explained that finding one or two reliable parts and repair vendors has helped in sticking with the budget.
Masquelier recommended starting with the low hanging fruit. In his case, “The city is in the process of building a brand-new public works facility, and [I’m] certain that there will be further opportunities to run leaner and achieve further savings.”
He noted that, “until then, we work as efficiently as we can with the resources we are granted.”
Beyond crunching the numbers, fleet managers should expect to deal with a lot of different personalities and learn how to manage each one.
Tews in Milwaukee said one of the biggest surprises for him was realizing how much of his time was spent on people management.
“Being the fleet manager, I was able to develop and hone my skills as a listener, moderator, negotiator, and even a mentor,” Tews said. “Learning to patiently search for all the facts before making decisions has paid off time and time again.”
A knack for interacting with people is also a plus for building a network. “I have quickly learned that this is a vital skill to succeed in fleet management,” Masquelier said. “Meeting so many people that are at different levels of governing has been a great experience, and it has allowed me insight into how the other facets of running a city work.”
Ford added, “Be firm on your vision and end goals for the organization. Be an active listener, network, and most importantly, take care of those who take care of you.”
Tews recommended getting involved with organizations and events that support a wealth of knowledge in fellow fleet managers across the country by attending conferences like Government Fleet Expo & Conference (GFX) and the American Public Works Association’s Public Works Expo (PWX).
Adjusting to a New Role
Not every fleet manager takes the same path to arrive at the position, so no matter what came before, there will inevitably be lessons to be had and times to draw on past experiences.
For instance, Masquelier has had to adjust to working in the public sector. Before working for the City of Easley, he worked for construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. He was a supervisor at two repair facilities in upstate South Carolina for 14 years.
“Coming from the private world, I had to adjust to the speed of the government sector,” Masquelier says. “The private enterprise is all about how quickly something can get done to maximize efficiency and profits. Not that we shouldn’t be working towards efficiency and timeliness in our fleet, but it is a different type of pace.”
Ford has also transitioned from another career. Before joining the fleet at the City of Orlando four years ago, he worked as a general-purpose mechanic for light-duty vehicles in the U.S. Air Force. He also worked on specialized equipment such as refuelers, cargo loaders, and fire apparatuses.
“Taking on my new role has been nothing short of fascinating,” Ford added. “I literally had no experience in the refuse truck industry but managed to pick up quite a bit of knowledge through networking with local vendors and other fleet managers who were willing to share their wisdom with me.”
Learning from former leadership is another way to do it. Cohen was promoted from within and is thankful she “already knew what a great team Culver City had in place,” she said. She considers it “a great benefit” to have already served on the management team with the group she now leads, “so I had many useful resources and was able to roll with the punches.”
Like Cohen, Tews was promoted from within. He started as a technician at Milwaukee and worked for 23 years as a staff manager before taking the helm. “This gave me a tremendous amount of experience working with other departments utilizing their services. Every step along the way helped to prepare for the demands of being a fleet manager,” he said. “Throughout the years, I watched many fleet managers come and go, good ones and bad ones. I learned valuable lessons from each of them, including what to do, and more importantly, what to avoid.”
Regardless of experience, Ford said, “We all make mistakes and bad choices on matters we don’t see clearly in the heat of the moment, but the most important aspect is to own them and use those mistakes as building blocks towards the next big decision — because, rest assured, it’s coming.”