Interviews
25 Oct 22

“Only one thing hasn’t changed: cars still have four wheels!”

Fleet Europe celebrates its 25th anniversary. In the years since 1997, our core mission hasn’t changed – informing the European fleet and mobility community of the latest and most important industry developments. What has changed, is the role of the Fleet Manager itself. How? We’re asking Fleet Managers with an impressive (and impressively long) state of service to help us look back. First up: Huub Smeets (pictured), Global Fleet and Travel Manager at Philip Morris International.

Huub, can you remember when and how you got your start as a Fleet Manager?

“Sure I can. That was back in May 2000 – so not quite as long ago as 1997. That’s when I became the Fleet Manager for Rockwell Automation, based Rotterdam and Brussels. Those where the days when fleet management still was kind of an unpaved road!”

Since your start in the business, obviously a lot has changed. What would you say was the biggest change?

“I would turn it around: the only thing that hasn’t changed, is that all cars still have four wheels! It’s difficult to say what the biggest change was, as they are all relative in the context of history. The focus on sustainability is obviously one of the most recent big changes. But for me, one of the key developments in the overall category is that the initial involvement by Procurement only has evolved into a multi-departmental approach, with inputs from Centers of Excellence, from Finance, Human Resources, Health and Safety, and Sustainability.”

And what, in your opinion, has been a less noticeable, yet also consequential change?

“From local to global to glocal: the realization that your fleet programme should be a balancing act between what’s needed at the local level and what’s possible at the global level. And that your ideal solution provides the best of both worlds.”

Obviously, the mainstreaming of the internet and of digitalization is the biggest change in all our lives since 1997. Where has that made life easier for Fleet Managers? And where has it made life harder? 

“The fleet category is quite an emotional one, and with digitalization, many drivers turned to the internet to become ‘Fleet Managers’ on their own. However, their ideas on car selection weren’t always in the best interest of the company.” 

“On the other hand, the internet has made information on the other side of the world available in just a few clicks, and this has made it much easier to share information within multinational companies, and with suppliers. Nowadays, corporates have the ability to run global RFPs in a standardized way, in a programme which is accessible to approved suppliers. That’s a more effective use of our time, which is certainly a positive.”

Fleet Management these days tries to take an international approach. Has this always been the case?

“My focus has always been as global as possible. Certainly, in the early stages – and sometimes still today – local countries perceive Fleet (as well as other categories) as their ‘local kingdom’.” 

“To overcome this, it’s crucially important to focus on relationships, to understand differences in culture, and to acknowledge the importance of the local contribution to the overall company fleet strategy. The most important success factor is regular communication.” 

“One final comment here: certainly in the early stages of Fleet Management, most of the programmes were run on a voluntary basis, as sponsorship in most cases was not present.”

As business models and mobility modes change, Fleet Managers are collaborating more and more with other departments. From your experience, what is the best way to go about this?

“As I mentioned before: by embracing this approach, as it will provide the optimum programme, both for the company as well as for the driver.”

Does this extended collaboration over the longer term not mean the end of the Fleet Manager role as a recognisably separate function? And if so, would that be a loss?

“In my 20-plus years in this business, I have seen the role of Fleet Manager evolve. In the ‘old days’, a Fleet Manager was a totally different type of manager, as that person would have the overall responsibility for a  fleet, with all aspects involved. As for me personally, I always resided in Procurement, but continuously partnered with other departments. Nowadays, corporates – especially the larger ones – have separated out the duties, which I think is the better approach.”

If Fleet Manager remains a separate and recognisable category, how will it change? Please look as far into the future towards the next 25 years as you can!

“In part, this will depend on your company’s fleet portfolio: does your company run a fleet of only benefit cars? Or is it a mix of benefit and tool cars?”

“For benefit cars, the role of Fleet Manager in my opinion will gradually evolve into that of a Mobility Manager – someone who has much less cars to manage, who works with a subscription model for all kinds of mobility available, and with a clear focus on the well-being of the employee. There already are some, in a few countries across Europe, but it’s still early days. In the rest of the world, it’s not even happening at all yet.” 

“For tool cars, the role of Fleet Manager will only gradually change, as this fleet is very important for such tasks as delivering goods to clients, for example. However, new technologies – drone delivery, for example – may turn out to have a major impact on this category as well.”

Image: Fleet Europe 

Authored by: Frank Jacobs
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