Fleet car: Whatever happened to the fleet manager?

Today's fleet bosses may no longer be kings of the car pool, but their remit - and their role - is wider and more business-critical than ever. Steve Fowler profiles a modern breed of multi-tasker whose responsibilities go well beyond the car park barrier.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Rewind 20 years to when Thatcher's Britain was in full swing, Rick Astley was number one, mobile phones were as big as your hair and pinstripes were as cool on jeans as they were on suits.

The guy - and he was a guy - with the biggest swagger (and the widest pinstripes) as he walked from the company car park was the person responsible for it: the fleet manager. A cross between Arthur Daley and Gordon Gekko, he'd approach the office with a copy of Fleet News tucked under his arm, stopping only to kick a few tyres on the way in. Company car users would quake as he passed their cars, hoping he wouldn't notice the scuffed wheel-trim or the empty sweet wrapper in the ashtray. In the corporate world of the '80s, the fleet manager was king.

Today, rumours of the fleet manager's death are greatly exaggerated. He (or increasingly she) may also be running a fleet of photocopiers, but the company car is still an important asset. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, just over half of the 2.3 million new cars registered last year were company cars. So the fleet manager is still busy - busier, even, says Stewart Whyte, director of the Association of Car Fleet Operators.

'The fleet manager's role is more complex and less vehicle-centric. It used to be down to getting the right vehicle at the right price. Now it's all about mobility management. There are fewer fleet managers around today and they're doing other jobs: looking after a firm's mobile phones, hotel bookings, air and rail travel, health and safety, driver training - the list goes on.'

That's certainly true of Justine Brown, who is responsible for 1,000 company cars and 1,000 'cash takers' - those who've chosen to take a financial package to purchase their own car rather than a company-provided car - at construction giant Taylor Wimpey (formerly Taylor Woodrow). She is head of resourcing and contracts and is based in HR. She's responsible for recruitment and third-party contracts, which for the past five years has meant the company car fleet.

Taylor Wimpey used to buy its own cars, but now the entire fleet is outsourced through Lex Vehicle Leasing. 'Outsourcing has saved the company lots of money,' she says, 'mostly because there's less capital outlay.'

The processes of her job have changed, too. She describes it as more about managing the cars and who drives what when, while much of the administration - especially when ordering the car - is done online through Mylex, Lex Vehicle Leasing's online ordering system.

According to Dennis Dugen, car fleet manager for WSP Management Services in Manchester, the basics of the job haven't changed much. He has been a fleet manager since 1992.

'At the core of fleet management is the fact that a company car for many is an important part of the job,' he says. 'The attitude of drivers to the company car has changed; it used to be more status-led, but now it's more considered. Some still want all the bells and whistles on their cars, but users are more conservative and want a car to fit in with how they will use it.'

Dugen believes there are far more elements to the job now. 'We have a duty of care to everyone who uses a car for business; there's the analysis of whether someone should take the cash or car; there's the health act, the smoking ban, dealing with speeding fines, and congestion charging coming to Manchester... All in all, an increasing number of little things that have to be taken care of.'

ACFO's Whyte agrees. 'The degree of difficulty of the job has changed completely. The last three or four years have seen a particular acceleration of issues: the London congestion charge, the insurance database, the duty of care. Then there are the stupid, nonsensical regulations surrounding the no-smoking laws.'

According to Whyte, any vehicle used for company business must be smoke-free, even if it's the employee's own personal car. And, of course, fleet managers are the ones who'll have to ensure that employees know, and stick to, the law. So watch out for your fleet manager sniffing your ashtray some time soon.

The big environmental picture has already hit this business hard. With company-car tax based on the amount of CO2 coughed out of a car's exhaust pipe, there has been a dramatic surge in demand for low-CO2 diesels - some fleets are in excess of 70% diesel.

Gary Killeen of GE Commercial Finance Fleet Services confirms the trend. 'The CO2-based benefit-in-kind taxation rules have had a dramatic effect on the kind of cars being chosen by drivers and they have been the main cause of growth in diesel sales over the last few years. The typical company car is now likely to have a diesel engine with a low CO2 output and, in this respect, fleets are among the most environmentally friendly road users,' he says.

Diesels score well in the CO2 stakes, but they are less impressive when it comes to local pollutants such as NOx and particulates. So are company car users really choosing diesel for the planet's health? Dugen is not so sure. 'There's no question that company-car drivers are sensitive to CO2 emissions, and it has been a massive job to educate drivers about CO2. I'd love to think the choices are being made because of environmental considerations, but I suspect it's down to financial implications.'

How well informed are company car users? Not very, according to Brown at Taylor Wimpey. 'Users still don't understand the CO2 taxation system,' she says.

If that's the case, how has it affected the number of people who opt to take the money and run - or drive their own car for work?

Says Killeen at GE Commercial Finance Fleet Services: 'When the CO2-based benefit-in-kind system was introduced, there was a swing towards cash options and structured employee car ownership schemes. However, there are signs that this is changing. Businesses and drivers are faced with the challenge that the vehicles used for company purposes - whether owned by the driver or provided by their employee - are safe and environmentally friendly. Many are concluding that the best way to do that is to provide employees with what might be described as the traditional company car and withdrawing their cash-for-car option.'

Will this mean more work for the poor old fleet manager as the number of company cars increases? Liz Hollands, fleet manager at property consultant DTZ Debenham Tie Leung, is certainly seeing more people opt for company cars. 'The numbers are creeping up again as people realise that it can be tax-efficient.'

Dugen thinks that could be a good thing. 'The number of people taking the cash for a car has grown dramatically in recent years, yet we still have a duty of care towards them. We have to check their insurance, their service records and MOTs, and when it's someone's own car, it's somewhat more difficult to do that.'

Controlling the availability of cars also has an effect on how and with whom a company does business. Explains Hollands: 'Environmental awareness is increasing. My company has to prove its environmental credentials to clients, and that includes details of our car fleet. We have to show we're making efforts to see our average CO2 rating going down - it currently stands at 161 g/km.'

Says Killeen: 'We'll be looking more than ever at whole-life costs and how they can be controlled, and increasingly utilising the benefits of technologies such as telematics to track exactly what is happening to fleet vehicles out on the road.' So although Big Brother may not be watching, your fleet manager probably will.

While companies, their staff and their clients cast an environmental eye over the company car, and the Government puts more health & safety responsibilities into the hands of the fleet manager (mention the words 'corporate responsibility' and watch the colour drain from your fleet manager's face), it seems that the car itself is almost forgotten. Do fleet managers still have the time to read their car magazines, flick through brochures and recommend cars on more than just their tailpipe emissions?

'The car itself is fundamentally so good and reliable these days, things going wrong are less of a concern,' says Whyte at ACFO - obviously, not speaking from the hard shoulder.

Pity the poor fleet manager who makes a duff choice and puts a car with a user who, for whatever reason (leaving the company or simply reluctant to be seen in last year's model), parks it back in the car park and just walks away. Try reallocating wheels that nobody wants. Silver is so last year, but not, it seems, as last year as an LPG-powered car. Even the car-makers have stopped trying to persuade us we want LPG.

If you can't reallocate, you run the risk of - cue Hitchcock-style screeching violins - early termination. Of the car's contract, that is, not the fleet manager's employment. Too many early-termination penalties incurred, though, may put a fleet manager in the breaker's yard.

It seems a crystal ball is needed. 'The fleet industry needs to spot what the trends are and prepare companies and fleets for them,' says Dugen at WSP Management Services. 'It means looking at new tech and listening to manufacturers, many of which seem to be going down a different environmental route.

'Car-makers are getting more nichey and there are niche engines in niche vehicles - many types of engines might be dead ducks. We have to be able to spot the winners and the losers.'

In spite of what finger-wagging environmentalists might think, the car is still popular - especially the company car. And for many, it's a worthwhile perk. As Killeen puts it: 'The main aim of fleet management is to provide cost-effective and efficient company transport that's a key part of each employee's benefits package.'

Fleet managers may not walk with the same swagger through the company car park that they once had, and at times they'll look as though they've got the weight of the world on their shoulders. But their role is more vital to your own and your company's wellbeing than ever. And for that reason alone, they deserve to be able to take a look in your ashtray without being given a hard time.

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