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Monday, October 29, 2007 

Vol. 3 No. 22

A) A Letter to the Editor of Automotive Fleet Magazine

B) A Response from the Editor & Publisher of Automotive Fleet Magazine

and,

C) A Response, to the Response, From Yours Truly…

Many Folks Feel Strongly About this Topic, Including Me…



I rarely write “Letters to the Editor” for the print publications I read, and I have never written a response to an Editor & Publisher, which is, indeed, itself a response to a “Letter to the Editor,” however, issues brought out in this particular dialogue hit close to home in many ways, for this automotive Internet “pioneer.”

In all an honesty, calling “a spade a spade” as it’s described below, I’ve run into the bureaucratic road block of professional fleet managers only doing “what their leasing company tells them” way more often than I have the “enlightened” fleet manager type who seems to think for him or herself on a matter…and, of course, as mentioned in the June letter, this problem I have experienced is exacerbated by the fact that our business is in remarketing off-fleet vehicles (“That equates to not a lot of knowledge about new vehicle front money and practically nothing about how the used vehicle market works – an area that far surpasses the front-end money left on the table”).

As Mr. Bobit determines, there are a whole lot of exceptions to this type of “non-thinking” fleet manager, and I’m privileged to know many of them, but, unfortunately, there are whole lot of the type outlined in “Anonymous’” June 2007 letter as well (and I’ve met many of them too). I don’t think this is necessarily an indictment on one sector of one industry though, as I say in my response, it is more an example of the “cover your butt” syndrome that has been prevalent in large corporate and government bureaucracy since, I think there have been bureaucracies. However, I have to say after 20 some years in the car business, with some exposure in other industries as well, that the US motor vehicle institutions and the management of the fleets that run them, seem the most bureaucratic and the last to adopt any changes or advances in technology and new processes. As was observed by EJ Lawless in his comments in this blog a while back (and observed in his own at blog at Auto Industry Startups http://autoventures.wordpress.com/), there is a dearth of tech type start-ups in the car business for very good reason…its rough going out there sailing against this type of anti-change, anti-innovation bureaucratic regressive attitude that permeates the atmosphere in this industry more than most others.

Does it impede innovation? Most likely. Is this why it exaggerates effects of such things as the “Tipping Point” phenomena or “herd mentality” in the car business (notice the sudden ubiquitous attention to “green” vehicles for instance), perhaps. Is it a big pain in the butt (and a cause for severe depression at times) for entrepreneurial types who spearhead new technology and processes to tackle old problems – that I can say, definitely, it is…but what can you do?

It was an old Japanese proverb, I think, that defined success as getting knocked down ten times and getting up eleven; or, closer to the ‘hood, as my fictional neighbor in Philly Rocky Balboa put it, “It ain’t how hard ya hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and still keep moving forward.”

At any rate, here is the dialogue, that, at least in my opinion is worth a second a look and raises a topic that is deserving of a lot of thought for anyone involved in this sector of the car business (as it did with Mr. Bobit one of, if not the, most knowledgeable human beings on the planet on these issues).


Letter to Automotive Fleet
June 2007 issue

When talking with some of my fleet manager peers, I need to call a spade a spade. In 20 years of fleet management, I have watched how these peers operate. While there are indeed a few “aces,” you can practically count them on one hand. Over the years, I’ve been to dozens of conferences, local NAFA meetings, and new-car showings. I’ve talked to literally multitudes of “fleet managers” and most sound like broken records. Ask them a question and their answer is: I’ll have to check with my leasing company and see what they say about that.” Most of the ones whom I perceived as true fleet pros run owned fleets and don’t have a leasing company.

My conclusion is that most so called fleet managers don’t know a whole lot, except what “their leasing company tells them.” That equates to not a lot of knowledge about new vehicle front money and practically nothing about how the used vehicle market works – an area that far surpasses the front-end money left on the table.

Over the years I’ve heard these peers voice the same complaint over and over, namely: “Senior management doesn’t give me any respect.” Well, respect is earned, not given for free. The only way I get “respect” is to politely ram the cost factor down senior management’s throats. How can you hope to do that if all you know is what “your leasing company tells you?”

Anonymous


Editorial Response from Ed Bobit, Editor and Publisher of Automotive Fleet, entitled, “There’s Serious Cause for Concern!
September 2007 Issue

Ever since this letter to our editor ran in our June AF issue, it has rankled the heck out of me. Not because it’s anonymous, not because it isn’t necessarily a legitimate observation, but more because it’s an indictment of our industry.

I take this assessment of fleet managers in general (always a dangerous ploy) personally. Why, you might ask? Well, we know the writer, and it’s a pro we all respect with years of experience successfully running a good-sized fleet.

We also know that we’ve been researching and writing feature articles every month for more than 46 years keeping the nation’s fleet managers informed with news and helpful solutions to their challenges. We know that the National Association of Fleet Managers’ (NAFA) Fleet Management Institute (FMI) and educational resource center, like our’s, provide many answers to their members.

So, after all of these years, and if there’s a shred of truth in what the letter writer has said, it’s a sad state of affairs. It’s not as if our editors and NAFA aren’t trying; the educational tools are in place. We need to take a hard look at the individual and his or her environment, and root out the lack of initiative.

Why, you ask? Because I know hundreds of knowledgeable fleet managers; it’s not a handful. Because there’s nothing wrong if you depend on an expert at your leasing company. They’re loaded with them (experts of all kinds who answer tough questions daily).

The base problem is that some people with little business experience are placed in the fleet manager function because executive management doesn’t understand the value of that position. Top management may be blind to the possible costs that can be charged needlessly or the possible savings that can be attained through experience and professionalism.

This letter prompted me to devote a lot of thought on the topic. Finally, in late July, I forwarded a detailed “Fleet Manager Recognition Program” presentation to NAFA’s Board for consideration. It outlined a definitive plan for elevating respect for fleet managers, identifying their values, directing this fact to corporate executive management by working together with our resources.

All of us should hope it flies. It’ll help, believe me.


My Letter to Editorial Response from Ed Bobit, Editor and Publisher of Automotive Fleet

Written, October 2007

I just read your editorial in the latest issue of Automotive Fleet (Sept 2007),”There’s Serious Cause for Concern!” and, as it turns out, the same issue/letter “rankled” me as well, as the topic kind of “hits home.” So, you know me, never shy to put my two cents in (though usually unsolicited), at the risk boring you, I thought I would give you below, a kind of letter to the “editorial” (if there is such a category of comment) with an additional viewpoint.

In short, I do think there is some merit to the argument in the June 2007 letter you cite, and it does make one bristle a bit, for a lot reasons. I also think that, to the extent it is an industry education problem, that is, a lack of knowledge or recognition, your research and writing, and all of the various activities of Bobit Media, and organizations like FMI, AFLA go a long way to eliminate the industry specific “cause” for the problem, as does a “Fleet Manager Recognition Program” initiative you identify.

I suggest however, although the letter reads as an indictment on a specific industry and job function/talent, I actually think it has a broader application. In short, substitute the phrase “I’ll have to check with my leasing company” with “I’ll have to check with my manager” (or committee, or partners, etc.) and I think the endemic nature of this excuse for individual initiative within a large institutional entity becomes more apparent. I think in many cases what is lacking is not knowledge or intelligence on a specific topic, or even job recognition to some extent, but the individual internal fortitude to “make waves” or champion any change that could have risk, and indeed, most significant innovations or change initiatives within an institution involve some form of risk.

Those who are old enough (and I’m past that point now I’m sorry to say), remember that for many, many years technology innovation was restrained to some degree in many large companies from the phrase/reality expressed in the saying, “no one ever gets fired for buying IBM” so no other newly introduced vendors or processes were ever seriously considered beyond the “status quo” (of course change eventually comes, but there is no denying this type of roadblock). I think maybe what is happening here to some degree is a variation, “no one ever gets fired for doing what the leasing company tells them to do,” feigned ignorance is the safest course of action (at worse, I guess, if things go bad the leasing company vendor gets switched).

I can’t help but refer in the fleet business to a particular residual value guidebook that was used for years (up until very recently) as the overriding preferred industry benchmark, that is, many years past the point when everyone (including those using it) knew that it had nothing close to actual vehicle resale values – filled with gross inaccuracies it became a benchmark by default, only because everyone used (and had been using) it (kind of like Paris Hilton being famous for simply being famous…self fulfilling group inanity?). Talk about an example of a systemic fear of change…

In any event, I don’t think by any means this is wholly a fleet industry problem. From my perspective in looking at many different industries and institutions (law, finance, telecom), it seems to me that while the specific lyrics might be different, the tune is the same – now more than ever, at least it seems to me, there is an almost paranoid avoidance of anyone within larger institutions to take individual responsibility to initiate a change in procedures, policy, etc, even ones that have a high probability to improve things. It’s not necessarily that folks are ignorant as to the underlying topic or benefits, it’s that if any new policy or procedure or product involves the slightest risk or downside, it’s rejected without consideration of the upside – note: there may be a very good reason for this from the individual’s perspective, as in many places the old tag line “a success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan” holds true. It seems as if people in larger institutions avoid taking responsibility to act as change agents or innovators, unless the institutional culture itself encourages and rewards this conduct (some very good business books have been written which identify this problem and focus on solution). To the extent that this is the case though, the problem is more a cultural one within each institution, and even the availability of all of the educational resources currently offered won’t move the needle as much as one would think they should, frustrating as it is for all parties.

John F. Possumato

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