Have you ever sat down to consider your future fleet strategy and thought: “I wish we could start this again with a blank sheet of paper"?
Few fleet managers will ever enjoy that luxury but it was exactly the opportunity presented to former Royal Bank of Scotland group fleet manager Maurice Elford when he joined L&Q.
The housing association’s decision to bring maintenance functions in-house brought with it an opportunity for someone to step into a new fleet management role to evaluate how best to operate and develop a strategy.
Elford was duly recruited as fleet manager earlier this year having taken a year off following redundancy at RBS.
He had spent 13 years at the bank and had been fleet administrator at Lombard before that. His huge experience in fleet management, including his previous role at a Fleet200 company, will no doubt be a great asset to L&Q, but Elford did have a few concerns about going back into fleet management after taking time off.
“I thought having been off for a year, going back would feel different and I started to do some homework,” he says. “This role is a lot more hands on with the vehicles.”
L&Q started as Quadrant Housing Association in 1963 and now works with more than 90 local authorities across London and the south east, where it owns and manages nearly 71,000 homes.
The fleet is currently small compared with Elford’s past experiences and the make-up is rather different, as the majority of vehicles are vans.
At RBS, he was responsible for around 4,000 vehicles, but they were all cars.
“I have moved from a predominantly perk salary sacrifice fleet to a predominantly van fleet,” Elford says. “This is a fresh challenge as I have had to quickly learn all about vans and racking.”
“Many of the issues are the same irrespective of the type of vehicle, but there are others that relate purely to vans, gross vehicle weights, for example.”
L&Q has a number of different models on its fleet at present, including the Ford Transit and Transit Connect, as well as Renault Kangoo, Trafic and Master tipper models.
“We have around 80 vans and 20 cars,” says Elford. “The cars are for senior management and very much in line with L&Q’s status as a social business and its environmental and safety ethos.”
L&Q previously outsourced its property maintenance work, but recently decided to take refurbishment in-house. It led to a need for more vehicles.
“ gives us better control in terms of quality and all those things associated with it,” explains Elford.
The additional vans are used to transport qualified staff, tools and equipment to sites to carry out work.
“We have staff in vans who carry out maintenance to properties,” says Elford. “We’ve also got a team of caretakers based around the buildings and estates.”
Elford says when the housing association’s current fleet of vans approaches the end of its lifecycle, the roles each vehicle must perform will come under closer scrutiny to provide a better match for the driver.
“Our next round of van procurement is going to be a bit more scientific about how we arrive at the decisions,” he says.
“We need to ensure that an electrician has a van suitable for their tools and equipment, which might be different from what a plumber might need and so on.
“They need to be fitted out for the trade and then we need to build what we need around that with the right vehicles.
“We’ll come up with specifications for vehicles depending on the trade then look for the most suitable vans with the aim of making them more user-friendly for their drivers.
“We accept at the moment that some staff might not be in the best van for them.”
L&Q’s vans are supplied on contract hire by Lex Autolease and include maintenance. That won’t necessarily change when vehicles need to be replaced, but Elford will be looking at all potential options.
As well as around 20 company cars driven by managers, L&Q also pays around 500 people an allowance for using their own cars.
At the time of writing, Elford was preparing a fleet strategy which would include three main priorities: fleet software, accident management and risk management.
These three factors are likely to have the most significant immediate impact on the fleet and help deliver the quickest gains.
Elford says: “Software will ensure all our fleet data is in the same place for the first time, including that of our grey fleet drivers. It will be much easier to maintain records for MOT testing, driving licence checking, insurance checks and so on.”
The first component of the strategy is expected to take place very soon. “The first part of the fleet strategy to be implemented will be accident management,” says Elford.
This is currently done in-house, but should be outsourced this month, taking away an administrative burden and allowing Elford to spend more time on other aspects of running the fleet.
Driver training could result in big savings for L&Q as there are a number of opportunities for improving performance.
The main aim of any driver training programme is to reduce the number of accidents, which in turn will reduce vehicle downtime through cutting repairs.
It also has the potential to reduce insurance premiums if fewer accidents are recorded.
Training can also help reduce fuel use if drivers are aware of potential hazards and avoid heavy braking and acceleration.
Elford says: “We’re still looking at driver training but will be introducing it. At the moment there is guidance but no training, so we need to ensure drivers undergo an online assessment to identify the risk.
“The plan then would be that after the online assessment we’ll sit down and talk with them to review what further action might be needed depending on their performance.
“There are mixed views about driver incentives to improve safety. One is the question as to why we should pay them extra to do something that they should be doing already.”
Although these are the main priorities, the changes are likely to continue in the long term as it becomes easier to measure potential cost savings.
Elford says: “When we get those three elements of the fleet strategy in place, we can get a proper handle on the cost savings.
“For example, when you look at the cost of fuel, the trend is only going one way.
“I think in the future we could be looking at introducing speed limiters to help reduce fuel bills.”
Elford is also seeking other ways of improving utilisation of vehicles and thinks using mobile servicing at offices could lead to a worthwhile reduction in vehicle downtime.
He says: “Mobile servicing at the office, booking a week in advance, would mean we lose a couple of hours to routine maintenance rather than a full day off the road when it comes to servicing and would help keep our staff on the road for longer.”
Elford is also aiming to cultivate and improve relationships with staff driving company vehicles to help shape future decisions and improve driver buy-in.
“We plan to have a driver forum or user forum. It’s an effective way of getting our message across to staff and to gain their feedback,” he says.
“We’ll meet once a quarter to discuss issues that might be affecting end-users of the vehicles.
“Ultimately, we want them to become part of the decision-making process and if they have input there is more likely to be consensus when we make decisions.”
No doubt there will be further challenges ahead, but a combination of a clear strategy, consensus among drivers and management as well as Elford’s experience will ensure L&Q’s fleet has firm foundations for the future.
L&Q’s fleet is urban-based, which is perhaps not the ideal environment to show diesel engines in their best light.
Their fuel economy can be hampered in low-speed driving and the price premium for a diesel engine over petrol means mileage has to be quite high to recoup the extra expense.
Many modern diesel engines also have particulate traps that need to regenerate occasionally when the vehicles run at sustained high speeds.
This allows the device to burn off excess soot at high temperatures.
However, this is not always convenient or even possible when cars and vans are based in urban environments.
It has resulted in some fleets looking at petrol and hybrids for company vehicles to avoid these problems.
Maurice Elford is prepared to consider petrol-engined vans, but there is a lack of choice in larger vans, with
most petrol options being offered in vans that are too small for L&Q.
“If we can find a suitable size of petrol van I would consider it as an alternative, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that would fit the bill at the moment.”
Elford is also open to the idea of replacing some vehicles with electric-powered alternatives.
He says: “I think it would be possible for us to run electric vehicles in some capacity with cars and vans where suitable.
“We’ve spoken to Renault and evaluated a Renault Zoe electric car. We’re exploring how we can take this further.”