Exchanging views and ideas with her fleet peers helps keep Ann-Marie Dunbar ahead of change. “It’s a fast-paced industry,” she tells Stephen Briers
Networking is often seen as a hackneyed word associated with dinners and events. But, done properly, it can unearth untold benefits. For Ann-Marie Dunbar, networking has been a mainstay of her drive towards continuous fleet improvement.
Since her appointment as Vodafone’s first dedicated fleet manager in 2013, Dunbar has been on a steep learning curve: initially getting to grips with 1,500 company cars, then being handed the multitude complexities of 500 light commercial vehicles after Vodafone acquired Cable & Wireless.
“There has been a relentless focus on processes and efficiencies,” says Dunbar, who spent the previous decade in HR (see panel overleaf).
“I learned early on that as a fleet manager you have to manage all sorts of stakeholders and understand their perspectives – finance directors, HR directors, procurement; you have to be all things to all people. That’s one of the things I like about the role.”
A key part of her learning and development has been networking with other fleet managers, both externally with those in other organisations and internally, as part of Vodafone’s global business.
“I link into my Vodafone group counterparts, representing the UK at a global level, and I am also out in the industry understanding the direction we are heading and the legislation coming our way,” Dunbar says.
“I try to network as much as possible with other fleet operators via our fleet provider and our other suppliers. It’s such a fast-paced industry, there are many things to consider in addition to keeping the fleet ticking over operationally.”
She also turns to her contacts abroad to seek best practice: “For example, mobility – where the Netherlands is ahead; we are working with fleets there to understand solutions we can trial that would work for our employees.”
Dunbar’s meetings with other fleets tend to be structured around the Vodafone fleet strategy and current priorities; for example, introducing telematics to the van fleet, which she did in 2014.
The opportunity to liaise with Vodafone fleet decision-makers in other countries is a more recent occurrence. The networking group consists of 8-10 fleets in key markets.
“In some areas the UK is more mature, but there are also ways we can learn,” Dunbar says.
Dunbar has implemented a host of initiatives since taking on the role. Her first priority was to look at the ageing job requirement car policy with the purpose of tightening up controls in areas such as mileage capture. Then she turned to the user-chooser policy, and in particular the wide range of cars on the options list.
“My experience in HR put me in a good position to understand where the balance sits within the business,” she says. “We look to give people what they want but I also wear the finance hat which means looking after the cost base.”
Dunbar analysed the models drivers were ordering and condensed the user-chooser list down to 14 vehicles. The majority of the fleet now centres on four key manufacturers.
The fixed list gives Vodafone the flexibility to meet demand for non-typical cars, such as people carriers and 4x4s, but drivers have to make a contribution dependent on their choice.
“That gives us the balance,” Dunbar explains. “It worked really well because drivers knew we were listening to them but also I was giving the stakeholders what they wanted.”
She reviews the list annually, having “open conversations” with each manufacturer to discuss their performance on the fleet and their future products, as well as sharing Vodafone’s business needs in order to identify the right vehicles to add to the list.
Every car includes a standard list of options paid for by Vodafone, including sat-nav, metallic paint, Bluetooth and rear parking sensors. Employees can choose to pay for other extras themselves.
No sooner had Dunbar finalised the company car policy, along came her next big test: light commercial vehicles. She reverted to her winning formula of meeting other fleet managers experienced in running large van fleets to improve her knowledge.
“We modelled our success on what we saw with other fleets. People were open about what they had achieved and also what didn’t work – the mistakes they made helped me to avoid them. I couldn’t have done it without them,” she says.
“We did case studies on what worked for them, especially on branding, telematics, driver alerts and taxation for private use. Within six months I went from having no knowledge to understanding best practice, writing an LCV policy and taking my recommendations to the stakeholders.”
One of the recommendations was the introduction of telematics, which was duly signed off. The full roll-out took place during 2014.
It has presented a number of challenges around data handling and management. “You have to know what your priorities are with the data. We’re still learning and this is a focus going forward, so we are looking at how other companies are using it for driver behaviour, accident reporting and real-time reporting.”
Dunbar has one fleet member of staff who is responsible for crunching the telematics data for stakeholders, as well as managing the mileage capture information and exception reporting.
Key measurements are fuel efficiency, speeding and time spent driving, with Dunbar working closely with the health and safety team. Drivers can access the data themselves – they also have in-cab units that issue alerts – as can line managers.
“It’s all fully auditable,” Dunbar says. “We look at it as their data; we just control how it is used.”
Arguably Dunbar’s finest achievement during her short time managing the Vodafone fleet is the creation two years ago of the Road Smart, Road Safe programme.
The annual events take place at Vodafone hubs across the country and saw 3,000 employees participate last year – a quarter of Vodafone’s UK workforce. They are intended to give employees access to new cars and other services as well as share fleet knowledge.
“It’s an opportunity for us to reinforce our safety culture, share technology and innovations, show our green initiatives and also our other services, such as discounted tyres and servicing and winter driving packs,” Dunbar says.
“Employees can speak to manufacturers about their next car, they can look at static vehicles for new technology and safety features, and they can speak to our health and safety team.”
Road Smart, Road Safe is open to all staff, not just company vehicle drivers, and has raised the profile of fleet within the business. Understanding of company policy noticeably rises from pre- to post-event, with excellent feedback from staff.
The events have also helped Vodafone to promote the benefits of plug-in hybrids as part of its environmental drive. The number of pure EVs and plug-in hybrids has risen to 69, just over 11% of the company car fleet. Dunbar hopes to increase this to 20% by the end of the year.
To support uptake, Vodafone has invested in charging points at a number of sites, which are available to all employees, not just company car drivers. Dunbar has also negotiated long-term test cars with a number of manufacturers to give drivers extended experience of living with electric vehicles.
“We’ve seen a real shift in attitude towards plug-in cars,” says Dunbar. “The next step is to look at electric vans, especially with the changes in London. I hope to get some in on trial this year.”
The Vodafone fleet is funded on a single-source contract hire with maintenance agreement through Arval, although some vehicles are still with legacy providers. It’s a global contract that offers volume of scale benefits, but also one that gives Dunbar more opportunities to tap into her counterparts at other fleets during focus group meetings.
“We have an outsource model; the majority of our day-to-day interaction with drivers is managed by our fleet partner,” she says. This frees up time to focus on strategy and new initiatives.
“I spend 40% of my time looking back and 60% looking forward, often over a two- or three-year timescale,” Dunbar says.
“I invest a lot of thinking time, but also networking or internal meetings with group colleagues. We review everything each year, from replacement cycles to policies, governance and compliance. With all the change in the industry, this is the right thing to do.”
Key considerations on Dunbar’s agenda
Mobility and connected cars are high on Ann-Marie Dunbar’s agenda. Vodafone has a mobility policy around business travel for those not eligible for a company car (the threshold is 10,000 annual business miles), which currently prioritises the use of hire cars.
“I started looking at journey patterns to identify opportunities where we can work smart,” Dunbar says. “The safest thing is to stay at your desk, but we want to help our employees by utilising different mobility solutions rather than the standard hire car. It will also reduce costs, CO2 and fuel use.”
Dunbar is also keeping a close watch on car connectivity and, in particular, the implications for employee data.
She says there is “some nervousness” over data access, but adds: “It’s an area we need to understand with manufacturers, finding out what is being introduced, how it is being used and how it will be stored. This extends beyond the car: everything will be linked and it can’t be looked at in isolation.”
The switch from HR to fleet management
When Vodafone senior management asked if anyone wanted to take responsibility for the car fleet in 2013, Ann-Marie Dunbar answered the call.
She had spent the previous decade mainly in HR working in benefits but saw an opportunity to take a good look at a car policy which had remained largely unchanged during her time at the company.
“The leadership team asked and I said ‘why not?’,” she says. “We had a company car policy that was steady but had been the same for many years. There had been no deep dive or look at other companies to see what they were doing.”
Dunbar focuses on balancing her stakeholder requirements with the needs of the drivers and the broader business.
“Fleet sits within the HR function so because we are not in finance or procurement, it gives me a neutral position which helps me to give a balanced view of the fleet,” she says.
“This strategic approach has delivered significant cost efficiencies to the business while maintaining a strong focus on great customer experience for our employees – keeping them mobile and connected is an absolute priority.”