The traditional fleet manager role is under threat in organisations large and small, but their expertise is invaluable. Andrew Don reports
Whether the role of fleet manager is disappearing or simply evolving is a moot point. The role could be dedicated, part of another function like finance or HR, or rolled into wider travel/mobility responsibilities, but the most efficient and effective fleet operations will always have in-house expertise – even if some companies do not fully appreciate it.
What is changing beyond doubt is the level of control kept in-house. Many companies have chosen to outsource admin functions or driver contact to a leasing or fleet management company, freeing up time for a fleet decision-maker to focus on strategy.
However, a growing number of companies have attempted to hand all control of their fleet to a third party, retaining only the slimest of KPI-based supply chain management responsibilities within a procurement or finance function.
Geoffrey Bray, chairman of the Fleet Industry Advisory Group (FIAG), is discomfited by the changes he sees happening to fleet managers.
Fleet managers knew everything about the vehicles and were the best people to make decisions that affected them when he started independent fleet management supplier Fleet Support Group in 1987, he says.
But gradually some organisations began to argue that fleet managers were no longer needed and the role became redundant in many businesses.
“In my view it was a mistake because to have the know-ledge, skill and understanding of why you have transport in the first place – for whatever reason – somebody needs to take ownership,” says Bray.
“While it may look cost-efficient that you allow someone else in the business, whether it’s in finance, HR, or wherever, it’s a mistake. You need to have that skill and experience.
“You are managing a considerable expense in terms of the vehicles you use and you need expertise to manage that consistently.”
He argues the loss of fleet managers over time is a “retrograde step” and in many instances there is a need for having somebody in a business that really understands what the requirements are when it comes to setting policy and making “the right kind of decisions”.
Peter Eldridge, director of ICFM, has a different take on the alleged demise of the fleet manager.
He says: “If you take black and white figures in terms of fleet managers reducing in numbers it paints an inaccurate picture because what is happening in fleet management is that the role requirements have been changing and they’ve been changing quickly.”
So where the fleet manager used to be king and in control of every aspect of the fleet, that has completely changed, he says. “I don’t think fleet managers in the strictest sense have declined in number by any significant degree,” adds Eldridge. “All that’s happened is the role has been expanded to embrace additional people so there’s a good argument to say perhaps the numbers haven’t changed at all.
“Titles haven’t necessarily changed a great deal. You still have fleet managers and fleet administrators actively involved, but sitting outside of that you’ll have equilibrium with finance manager, HR director, procurement manager, procurement director. The titles are almost superfluous to a point.”
The reason this has happened is because the activity of fleet management has expanded in terms of the requirement, involving a host of different disciplines, because of compliance requirements and duty of care.
“The point is they now absolutely need to recognise that they have a responsibility to adopt a professional approach to the management of fleet,” adds Eldridge.
The worlds of travel, payments and fleet are “colliding” for the first time.
He throws into the mix technology in terms of connected vehicles and autonomous vehicles and says the “dynamic of the fleet asset” is changing.
“Fleet managers are having to become experts in many more spheres,” says Eldridge. “Whatever title you want to give them, it doesn’t matter.”
Employers need to recognise that management of fleet is not something you can do just spending a couple of hours a week on “as is classically believed”. It’s not some business add-on, he says.
“Employer and employee need to step up to the plate and re-evaluate themselves in terms of their education, know-ledge, skill and accreditation,” says Eldridge.
John Pryor, chairman of fleet operators association ACFO, says he heard “only the other day” of a fleet manager who had been made redundant at a household-name organisation.
“He said they’re breaking it all up, bits going here, bits going there and bits going somewhere else,” says Pryor.
“We are seeing this trend and, unfortunately, I suppose people don’t see the value in it. Maybe they’ve outsourced the fleet to a lease company.”
Bray says that in many cases where organisations have made the fleet manager role redundant and outsourced it, there is “a grave danger”.
How can you possibly outsource that function effectively and still keep an element of control? he asks.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking costs out of a business but who makes those decisions?” says Bray.
“Are you making a decision on cutting costs because you are aware of all the tangible and intangible costs? It is the intangible aspects where the detail is, and if you don’t have a clear understanding of what’s needed to fulfil your business requirements you could face a problem.”
Bray questions how an outsourced provider can possibly understand the nuances of a business unless they are working within it.
“If I’m not embedded in your business, I don’t understand your business,” he says. “I’m looking after a variety of businesses all with different demands.”
Bray argues better decisions will be made and more cost-efficient and effective ones when an organisation uses its own professional fleet manager.
Even when the fleet manager role is diluted in different company departments, this is “a dysfunctional approach”, he believes, because other departments, such as HR or finance, have different pressures and different agendas.
“A fleet manager proper would take a balanced view and make the right decision for the company,” Bray says.
“You start off with the question do I need vehicles? Yes. Okay now what vehicles do I need? What are my operational requirements? What are the operational demands on those vehicles likely to be?
“You need to have expertise and an understanding of that. If you make a requirement decision based on finance – what is the lowest cost I can buy a vehicle for – you could end up paying a price,” says Bray.
Despite these straitened times, the writing is not quite on the wall, perhaps.
Pryor says the fleet manager role should be expanding and changing as companies expand and change. It definitely needs to embrace and adopt technology.
“Instead of employees phoning the fleet manager saying ‘my tyres are down, what should I do?’, they are going on their app and the app is telling them what to do,” he adds.
Few fleet decision makers would deny this is positive progress (although some drivers still prefer picking up the phone – see page 26). And the biggest positive is that it gives them more time to focus on cost and safety initiatives, and preparing the business for future integrated travel management and connected vehicles.