A look at effective practices and contending with COVID and growing environmental awareness.
Fleet Management can often encompass many different functions.
Successful fleet organizations understand that fleet managers need to have the means to procure, operate and dispose of the right number of vehicles depending on the requirements of the business or municipality.
Additionally, effective channels of communication between the different departments of the organization are essential to ensure operations go smoothly.
In this video interview, Chris Hill, Program Manager; Fleet Planning for the City of Guelph provides an overview of modern fleet management practices as well as the impact of issues such as COVID-19 and growing environmental concerns.
Autosphere: How did you first get involved in the fleet management business?
Chris Hill: I originally started working for a leasing company that basically broke with the traditional leasing model towards individuals like doctors and lawyers and started to approach corporate fleets to offer the product to them.
It was something that hadn’t been attempted before and did in fact meet with a great deal of success.
I was there for a few years and then moved on to my first role as a corporate fleet administrator for General Foods which is now part of the Kraft Heinz Company.
I then worked for Honeywell but later left the corporate side to go back to the leasing end of things and then started working in the public sector.
During that time, I was involved with organizations like the NAFA Fleet Management Association, of which I was chair of the Ontario chapter twice.
Ontario is one of the largest chapters within NAFA and it’s gone through quite a transformation over the past several years. When I first joined, most members were private corporate fleet managers, while today it is mostly public sector fleet managers.
I also spent two years heading up Electric Mobility Canada, which is a national, membership-based not for profit organization that promotes electric transportation.
AS: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in terms of fleet operations since that time?
CH: I think first and foremost is the amazing improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency over the last 40 years or so.
With advances in-vehicle technology, the amount of fuel being used has declined dramatically.
Going back a few decades; I used to go skiing for the weekend and it was a 250-kilometre round trip to reach the ski hills and come back.
At the time, cars typically consumed 80-90 litres of fuel in order to make that round trip.
Today I can make that same trip in my hybrid vehicle, consuming just 12 to 15 litres of fuel so it’s just been an incredible improvement. We’ve also seen great improvements in the longevity, robustness and reliability of vehicles.
When I first started out, a vehicle typically came with a one-year warranty, and that was it.
If you were still driving that vehicle in the second year you were deemed to be a risk-taker and if you were driving it in year three, you were considered to be absolutely reckless with regards to your own safety and/or the reliability of that vehicle.
Today, we’re routinely keeping vehicles for seven to 10 years and sometimes even longer in service with few concerns.
AS: Can you tell us a little about your current role and what it entails?
CH: We have on our fleet list about 1,000 assets that cover just about everything from aerial trucks to Zambonies.
We have several lines of business within fleet services at the City of Guelph.
In addition to our maintenance and repair business, which we carry out at two garages in the city, my area looks after all the planning functions—everything that is not actually production, which would be the work done in the maintenance garages—so my lines of business include vehicle acquisition and disposal.
We also have a fuel business and a parts business as well. We do licensing and provide insurance for vehicles, and we also do vehicle rentals—our summer programs require about 75 rental vehicles in order to carry those out.
Finally, we also do Key Performance Indicator (KPI) reporting as well. We have a variety of KPIs that we report to senior management, every month to show them how we’re doing with those issues that we control.
AS: Given the size and diversity of a fleet such as the City of Guelph, what are some of the key considerations when trying to maximize vehicle use and productivity?
CH: I think one of the issues we’ve faced here in Guelph, is to try and not let the users build up a hidden fleet of spare vehicles.
Obviously, some services that the city provides—ambulance and transit and residential curbside waste collection—need to have enough vehicles because they’re on a schedule, or they are required to respond within a certain amount of time.
For the rest of the fleet, which encompasses 15 different departments (including parks and water services, wastewater, bylaw enforcement and building inspections etc.), we really don’t require spare vehicles in order to carry out those operations.
There are, however; some managers that insist on keeping back old vehicles that have been replaced as a just-in-case measure and it can become a very expensive millstone around the fleet manager’s neck.
It can also make it very difficult for those managers to demonstrate that they have control of costs—especially when they have additional fleet vehicles that are probably sitting parked most of the time because they have been replaced and the user of that vehicle would prefer to drive a newer one.
AS: Tell us a bit about service/maintenance requirements and some of the most effective ways you’ve found to approach this?
CH: If you have your own shop and you’re repairing your own vehicles on an in-house basis, you want to make sure you don’t overdo the maintenance just to keep your crew busy. Doing so is a waste of time and resources and it’s really not necessary.
The other thing; is to make the status of the work that you’re doing visible to the user groups that are out there. In Guelph, we use what’s called a virtual whiteboard (which replaces an actual physical whiteboard).
It’s something that’s visible on the user’s laptop or on their phone—using a third-party service called LeanKit. Essentially, it’s just like a regular whiteboard—it’s got lanes marked up there and as work on a vehicle progresses, it moves from left to right, just like reading a book.
We can show when a vehicle has arrived, we can show the work in progress and when the vehicle is completed and ready for pickup.
We also use this for our vehicle replacement program where we are able to see the status of vehicle orders.
The board can show when the orders have been placed, when we expect delivery and when the vehicles have been picked up.
AS: What has been the overall impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the City of Guelph fleet?
CH: In all actuality, it’s been limited to just our transit system, and to some extent to our recreation facilities.
The rest of the city services have continued to function normally.
Additionally, the requirement for vehicles hasn’t really diminished at all.
The bus fleet is operating at about 60% service compared to what it was pre-COVID.
Our recreation facilities have been opened and closed and then opened and closed again, primarily the vehicles that those facilities use, are for ice resurfacing, so that’s something we have to deal with.
Other than that, I would say our fuel budget is down because of reduced consumption.
Again, the buses are the biggest users of that, but also, it’s taking longer to get new vehicles delivered due to things such as the shortage of semiconductor chips.
Overall, we’re keeping vehicles longer and requiring more parts to keep them on the road.
AS: What’s your current approach to procurement and asset retirement given the inventory challenges many fleets currently face?
CH: Currently, we’re doing something we’ve almost never done in municipal procurement before and that is looking at dealer stock.
There is certainly scarcity there too, but sometimes; we find vehicles that we’re able to get delivery on right away.
This avoids the much longer lead times that we’ve been seeing from traditionally placing a factory order to receiving delivery.
In some cases, I’ve gone and bought previous model-year vehicles, that are unused and still brand new that comes with a full warranty.
I have no difficulty taking a 2020 model or even a 2019 model, as long as it’s new and it can be delivered right away.
AS: How has telematics impacted your business and, if applicable, what are some of the biggest benefits you’ve been able to realize from harnessing the power of data?
CH: I’ve always insisted that telematics is not a fleet management function.
Instead, it should be a function for the Information Technology Department, the same as cell phones or key location radios.
I think corporate radios are a security item and to some extent so is telematics.
As such, I think it is a function that is best managed by the use of specific departments and/or by the IT department, meaning that fleet management shouldn’t be involved.
AS: Can you tell us a little about Guelph’s approach to “greening” of the vehicle fleet and some of the strategies you consider to be most effective in doing that?
CH: Guelph won an award from Fleet Challenge Ontario, and the E3 Fleet Program for its greening program back in 2014.
We’re continuing some of the work that was initiated back then, including the use of hybrid vehicles.
We’ve been utilizing hybrid vehicles for over a decade now and we’re starting to order pure battery electric vehicles as well.
We’ve currently got several on order but the biggest prize for us is with Guelph transit, where we have 80 diesel buses in service.
We currently have a procurement underway for up to four battery-electric buses that we would hope to have delivered sometime next year and put into service. We did a lot of preparation for this and we spent two years gathering and analyzing data.
We had a discovery team that, besides fleet management included the transit operations people and our corporate energy team in our facilities division because the first thing we need to do is make sure our facilities have the electrical infrastructure to charge the buses.
Over the next seven, eight years, we have a goal of converting 65 buses from diesel to battery electric power.
We also think that it doesn’t really stop with buses.
A longer-range goal—if we can successfully electrify transit buses—is with the trucking fleet, both those that we operate as a municipality and also private trucking fleets in the Class-4 to Class-7 range, particularly with urban applications that are return-to-base fleets.
We feel that with trucks, there’s a real opportunity to reduce a sizable portion of greenhouse gas emissions If we can get those Class 4-7 commercial vehicles to be electrified.
AS: As we move forward, what do you see as some of the most significant developments happening as it relates to fleet management?
CH: I think fleet management continues to evolve and away from the control principle that many fleets have operated under.
Today, it’s moving more towards transferring control over fleet expenses to the people who really do have that level of control.
In my mind it’s a mistaken notion to think that the fleet manager has the ability to control the major drivers of fleet expenses.
The number one driver is the number of units in service, followed by the number of kilometres that are driven and then the type of equipment that’s in service.
At the City of Guelph, we have a highly customized fleet because our various user groups are so diverse in terms of the operational requirements that they have.
Therefore, it’s simply not possible for the fleet manager to say they want to standardize the fleet to 3/4-ton pickup trucks, because it just won’t work for an awful lot of users.
Similarly, the number of vehicles that they have out there is well beyond the fleet manager’s control.
For example, it is not the fleet manager’s business to dictate how garbage is picked up in the residential collection program.
AS: Any final thoughts regarding fleet management?
CH: I think fleet managers still need to keep in mind what sort of strategy they’re going to use in order to deliver their services.
I’ve found that there are really three that can be considered for the fleet.
The first is focus and manage, and that is—do everything you can to build a high-performance service organization that allows your operation to deliver their product or service better.
The second option would be to consider outsourcing for mixed fleets that have both light and heavy-duty vehicles in their fleets, but currently, there aren’t a lot of these types of outsourcing opportunities.
We’ve got fleet management companies who are doing light-duty vehicles and we’ve got specialty companies that are doing heavy-duty vehicles, but I don’t think anybody’s doing both.
We have had some talks with some of the larger fleet management companies recently and haven’t been able to find the cost savings necessary that would provide a compelling case for outsourcing.
The third option would be to return fleet management to the users and let them manage their own vehicles themselves.
The difficulty here is they often don’t have the fleet management capability or the experience in order to do that.
And, it’s a difficult process to untangle all of the fleet management functions that were formerly centralized and have been reproduced in the user group.
I think that the primary issue is focus and manage—concentrate on talking to management—senior management without resorting to fleet shop talk that to management, sounds like a completely different language.
Management understands the business functions that are common to most organizations—there are five key management functions in most private organizations and you will often find Vice-Presidents for each of these functions.
These are Finance, Human Resources, Information Technology, Operations and finally Marketing and Communications.
If you can keep your issues slotted into each lane for those management functions there, you’ll find that management has a much better time and clearer grasp of the issues that are actually facing fleet managers.