Fleet News

Mears Group: ‘Don’t be afraid to innovate’

Embracing innovation and technology is critical to efficient fleet management, with costs inevitably under the corporate microscope.

That’s the view of Jo Hammonds, group asset manager at Mears Group, where he is charge of a 5,000-strong fleet of which 4,350 are light commercial vehicles with the remainder company cars.

Gloucester-based Mears Group employs almost 17,000 people in every region of the UK. It is the nation’s leading social housing repairs and maintenance provider, carrying out in excess of 3,750 repairs every day to  a portfolio of around one million homes nationwide for local authorities and registered social landlords. The company also provides a range of care services to local authorities and a number of clinical commissioning groups.

However, the core of the business is maintaining and upgrading the homes of hundreds of thousands of people in communities from remote rural villages to large inner-city estates. This means the light commercial vehicle fleet is a core part of the business, enabling a wide range of skilled tradesmen to undertake planned and emergency work.

Operating a solus diesel-only Ford van fleet for a number of years, Mears Group last year signed a five-year sole-supply funding and fleet management contract with Zenith, which also embraces a full arsenal of other services – notably including telematics.

Hammonds joined Mears Group 14 years ago, after more than six years in the vehicle rental industry latterly with the now defunct GE-owned TLS Vehicle Rental business.  

He feels telematics data is a vital aid to vehicle management rather than information being used as a driver behaviour management tool.

Effective and efficient vehicle downtime management is critical for Mears Group which is why telematics is being rolled out across the van fleet to maximise uptime.

“Proactive, not reactive, management is essential,” says Hammonds, explaining how vehicle fault code analysis can lead to a problem being immediately rectified, alongside the use of telematics to aid service and accident management.

“We continually receive information, so can immediately see if a vehicle incident has occurred and can take instant action to recover the driver and vehicle so as to limit impact on the business.”

He continues: “If we don’t attend a call-out, the customer is disadvantaged and the cost of revisiting the job means the price is doubled. It is critical to keep vehicles on the road, not only from a business and client satisfaction view, but also taking account of safety in respect of a gas, electric or plumbing emergency.”

That’s why Mears Group’s 250 branches nationwide are given a menu of choices as to where vehicle maintenance is carried out, with both franchised and independent garage options alongside mobile servicing, out-of-hours, evening and weekend choices.

“The focus is on maximising vehicle uptime so we want to give branch managers as many options as possible so any van maintenance work does not impact on work schedules,” says Hammonds. “Vans can be parked at a job for half-a-day or more, so mobile servicing is an effective option.”

The nature of the business means that fleet mileage is low, with vans averaging 10,000-12,000 miles a year and run over a four-year replacement cycle.

The van fleet comprises a wide cross section of Ford models from Fiesta vans to 3.5-tonne Transit panel vans as well as four-wheel drive, tippers, chassis and crew cabs.

Hammonds explains: “We have a wide-ranging vehicle requirement and Ford could meet our demands, while other manufacturers have holes in their line-ups. Partnering one manufacturer has enabled the company to streamline the fleet and make better use of vehicles.

“It also ensures that vehicle lead times can be managed so defleeting one vehicle and introducing another is as efficient as possible.”

That includes an across-the-fleet bid to downsize vehicles while always taking into account fitness for purpose.

Branch managers and drivers are encouraged to ‘right-size’ where possible to deliver both fuel saving and emission benefits from smaller vans, which perhaps means replacing a Transit with a Transit Connect and the latter with a Fiesta Van.

All vehicles are fitted with speed limiters, set to 60mph, reversing sensors and Bluetooth and are ply-lined. Additionally, vehicles carry the livery of Mears Group or that of clients.

A staggering eight million litres of diesel is purchased annually to keep the fleet on the road, which means that new engine technology developed by Ford to improve fuel economy and cut CO2 emissions is embraced by Mears Group.

“From a vehicle maintenance viewpoint we could run vans for five or six years, but we calculate that there is a bigger gain to be had by replacing vehicles at four years and taking advantage of the new engine technology,” says Hammonds.

The environmental agenda is a core focus across Mears Group and that means replacing older vans with fuel-efficient, emission-reducing Euro 6 vans alongside downsizing and utilising telematics data.

The option of introducing alternatively-fuelled vans has been investigated by Hammonds but operationally has so far proved unsuitable, while the introduction  of petrol-engine Fiesta vans has also  been researched.

Given the relatively low and mostly urban mileage of the fleet, blockages of the particulate diesel filter on diesel vans was a fear with the introduction of petrol vans in some cases a possible alternative. Hammonds says the fears had so far not been realised but all fuel sources were continually kept under review.

Meanwhile, a challenge in 2015 following the introduction of a new fuel card arrangement with BP is to drive down the volume of fuel purchased.
“We continue to seek to make best use of the benefits and innovations through our relationship with Zenith and that means making best use of data to ensure that we get value for money,” Hammonds says.

“Part of that focus on value for money is improving our fuel management. Our new fuel card scheme has benefits in terms of pricing and we must capitalise on that.”

Mears Group’s funding and fleet management partnership with Zenith runs until 2019 and, while the five-year agreement may seem long to some fleet operators, Hammonds says it makes sense.

“We wanted to go through a complete vehicle replacement cycle with our chosen supplier so that meant we had to agree a five-year contract,” he explains.
Although a fast-growing company, the Leeds-based provider proved attractive to Mears Group because of the smaller size of the business, competitive pricing and innovations it promised immediately and during the lifetime of the contract.

Due to the rapid growth of Mears Group, the business had inherited some vehicles already fitted with telematics or trackers as a result of corporate acquisitions, but the technology had not been adopted across the fleet. The switch to Zenith delivered that option and, while it offered major improvements in vehicle management, it has also delivered driver behaviour improvements.

“We remain in the early days of telematics because older vehicles are still being replaced, but we are seeing vehicle downtime reductions from the management information reported, improvements in fuel economy and a reducing number of incidents because drivers are more attentive,” says Hammonds. 

Allied to the standard fitting of speed limiters, driver licence checking and weekly driver vehicle defect checks, it is clear the company promotes a safety agenda.

Vehicle accidents remain at the low end of the industry spectrum – some 470 third party incidents last year across a fleet of 5,000 vehicles (typically linked to low speed manoeuvering). Driver training is an option if an employee is involved in a number of incidents. Each is investigated to see what can be learned.

Communication is key, says Hammonds. “We were very clear with the drivers that our use of telematics is all about vehicle management allied to speed management and not about tracking their movements,” he says.

Hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs) are used by branches and given to tradesmen – many of whom are now home-based – to enable them to download each day’s jobs. These allow monitoring of movement and enable branches to communicate new jobs to employees during the course of a working day.

“Introduction of the PDAs has made tradesmen more efficient and that in turn has reduced vehicle mileage as the nearest available employee goes to the new job,” says Hammonds.

What’s more, the technology means drivers are not having to continually return to branches for materials and equipment and have access to merchants to buy stock.

“We have taken weight out of the vehicles by changing the way tradesmen work and reducing their daily mileage through the use of technology, which is reducing fleet mileage and vehicle wear and tear,” says Hammonds.

Imminently, the PDAs will be upgraded to enable the tradesmen to complete vehicle defect reporting electronically.

Although currently not a member of commercial vehicle best practice initiatives such as the Freight Transport Association’s Van Excellence or Transport for London’s Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme, those options are kept under review.

Hammonds explains: “I believe most of what such schemes require for accreditation purposes we already do day-to-day, so it is difficult to see where the initial benefit would be. 

“However, we keep all issues under review and it is clear that some organisations, particularly London-based ones, require contractors to have FORS membership.

“If membership helps the business then we would join, but it would be beneficial if there was just one accreditation scheme rather than separate initiatives.”
Hammonds says he has always benefited from discussing fleet-related issues with his peers, however. 

“Sometimes it is a sanity check,” he says. “Fleet decision-makers can feel isolated,  so talking to colleagues at workshops,  seminars and events is very helpful and sometimes you can learn something extremely useful.”

Hammonds heads a fleet department that today, following outsourcing to Zenith, consists of north and south regional fleet managers who act as the conduit with the Mears Group branches in terms of ensuring policy and procedures are followed. 

Any problems are quickly resolved. An office-based fleet administrator has also been employed.

While the company’s fleet size has been static for more than a year, Mears Group remains in acquisition mode, so an increase in the number of vehicles in the fleet is always a possibility.

Hammonds spends approximately 50% of his time on fleet issues and is also responsible for property, insurance and other business assets including equipment.

After more than two decades in the fleet industry, and having managed one of the UK’s larger fleets for over half of that time, he feels he has learned much and says that the wave of technology now available has transformed the role.

“When I started in fleet it was a case of just putting vans on the road, but now there are myriad innovations and tools to manage both vehicles and drivers. Whether from vehicle manufacturers or suppliers, technology has to be embraced,” he says.

“Utilising the wave of innovations and technology available should be the default position for all fleet managers. 

“Today’s vehicles deliver huge efficiencies and management reports from telematics have enabled fleet managers to be more proactive in everything they do, which further drives efficiency and cuts costs. Reacting to an event is a signal that something has gone wrong and that will almost inevitably prove costly.”

Furthermore, Hammonds advises fleet decision-makers to ensure they implement a standard process for vehicle procurement across the business to deliver optimum efficiency with a seamless switch between defleeting and the introduction new vehicles.

“Ensure the fleet policy is in writing and clearly understood across the business and is easy to follow,” says Hammonds. 

“But, above all, don’t be afraid to innovate. Sometimes trying new things may not work – but at least try.

“When we introduced speed limiters, everyone thought drivers would kick-up a fuss. However, introduce change for the right reasons and explain it and there will  be support. 

“Today, the fitting of speed limiters is not questioned and the benefits are improved safety, reduced accident damage and fuel economy.”

 

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