14 nov 22

Michael Pohl: “You can outsource a lot, but not the role of the Mobility Manager”

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. Today: Michael Pohl, Senior HR Benefit Program Manager at Microsoft.

Microsoft has a global fleet of about 9,000 vehicles, of which roughly 7,500 in Europe. Mr Pohl manages the company’s fleets in the DACH region (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and Eastern Europe – 10 countries in all, which represent about a third of Microsoft’s European fleet total. 

Michael, do you remember when you entered the Fleet business?

“That was on January 1st, 1993. I'll be celebrating my 30th anniversary in Fleet next January! But it was not with Microsoft? I started out working for various leasing companies. I switched to the ‘other side’ – the customer side – on February 1st, 2008. That’s when I started at Microsoft. So I’ll have a 15th anniversary celebration shortly after the 30th anniversary (laughs).”

When you started at Microsoft, was it immediately as Fleet Manager, or did you start with another responsibility?

“What I did was called Category Manager Fleet. Basically, we were the Fleet Manager, which then developed into fleet programme management. We did not manage operations, because we had suppliers who did that back then. We managed the suppliers: we built up an international fleet programme. Ultimately, we shaped Microsoft’s international fleet the way it is today.”

“Today, I’m still working on similar topics as when I started out in this job, because at the end of the day, it’s still Fleet. But now, the scope is changing to encompass Mobility. There are much more topics today, related to Mobility on the one hand, and to electrification on the other.”

“I introduced the first CO2 cap back in 2009, and that was a revolution back then. That gives you a little hint of why CO2 reduction is so close to my heart. In the past 15 years, we we’ve really been able to come down from above 200 g/km. And now we have an average of around 90 g/km for our European fleets. In some fleets, it’s even 60 g/km, which is pretty good.”

Over the years, has your role changed from operational to strategic? Or has it always been strategic as well? 

“Basically, the role is defined as being strategic – but of course, you’re permanently involved with operational topics, of a wide variety. For example, we didn’t have these supply change issues in the past. We didn’t have to deal with electrification, which is now dominating our world since about two years. When you manage a fleet, you have to run operational work and strategic work in parallel.”

And that combination won’t change, you think?

“Sometimes it will be more of one, and less of the other. For example, I’ve taken over as the global manager for relations with the OEMs. That’s a very strategic role, defining and managing agreements. I’ve been doing that for six to eight years, and in this role, there’s a clear focus on strategic goals. One of those strategic topics today is electrification, where it helps to have a limited number of dedicated OEMs to work with, who have a vision on electrification.”

“But I’m also responsible for the entire global reporting topic, where we’ve built up our own reporting base. And we can now look back on our fleet all the way to 2013 to now. So that’s 10 years of fleet development, or to put it a different way: an Excel file with more than 380,000 line items.”

After 15 years in your role as a category manager for fleet, what in the business has changed the most, in your opinion? 

“What hasn’t changed, is that we’re still talking cars. We have a benefit fleet, which is completely different from a functional fleet. From that flows that many things will stay the same. What certainly has changed over the past 15 years is the powertrain discussion – in other words, electrification. And secondly of course Mobility, which is coming more and more to the front. Also internally, where we have discussions about why we need a fleet at all? Why can’t we give our drivers cash instead? That’s an ongoing discussion.”

“One of the drivers of the discussion is our CO2 target for the whole company, which is zero – or rather, below zero – by 2030. The fleet itself has to be zero-emission eight years from now.” 

How has the internet and digitalization changed Fleet Management? 

“In a word: totally. We’re working with completely different tools. We have a much better view on our entire fleet. The global reporting that I mentioned earlier gives us a level of insight into the fleet that is, frankly, mind-blowing. We can answer all type of questions from OEMs and other partners about how they’re evolving within our fleets, and that gives them the opportunity to help us. So we’ve developed a genuine partnership.” 

Another recent development is market consolidation, within both the OEMs and the leasing companies. How is that changing how you do your job?

“In terms of leasing partners, we came from a multi-supplier environment in the past and we’re now moving towards a single-supplier one in our 20 countries in Europe. Not globally.” 

Is it a problem that there is now less competition between suppliers? 

“No. You always have advantages and disadvantages no matter which model you select. And managing a multi-supplier environment also has disadvantages. So you need to find the right balance. For now, we've selected a single lease supplier and we’re using a fleet management company to help us a little bit to manage our processes. So we have sufficient control, especially on the invoicing. Which is important.”

As you’ve already indicated, we’re now moving into the Mobility space. This adds complexity to the role. How?

“Mobility adds an additional layer, because you somehow need to combine traditional fleet work with mobility offerings. We’re always trying to harmonize things, make everything the same in every country. But that’s just impossible, even in a united Europe.” 

“So, we’re testing things. We’re running two pilots in Germany right now, which are quite successful, with positive feedback both from the industry and our employees. But we can’t apply that to other countries, because that particular solution is not available there – or not in the way we would need it.”

“So we always need to see what we can do locally, and over time. I do think that by the end of the decade, we will see some synergies emerge, when the industry will have solutions available for all the markets where we need them.”

Does Mobility also imply that you have to speak with more internal stakeholders than before, in a purely Fleet-centred environment? 

“Interestingly, when I started at Microsoft, I was in Procurement, and we had HR and Finance involved. That has shifted around. Since roughly a year, I’m part of the global Compensation and Benefits organization. So, you talk from a different perspective now. And HR asks different questions now. Procurement is still involved. We’re really discussing the pros and cons of various setups.”

“And there are other categories that were not involved before. For electrification, you need Real Estate, to implement charging solutions. But at the end of the day, we have the advantage that we can work quite autonomously now.”

What is the most fun thing about being a Fleet Manager?

“I like the networking part a lot. The sharing of experience – and continuing to learn. It’s give and take. And I really like the industry itself. I’ve been in it for 30 years, in the beginning only in Germany but now also internationally. I’ve made a lot of friends.” 

“The fun part was when I changed from the supplier side to the client side. Because you see how people are now interacting with you in a different way. Previous competitors are now all suppliers. And previous potential clients are now all our peers. That was really interesting. There’s not that many people in the industry who’ve worked on both sides of the table. Not only is that fun, it also helps a lot.” 

If we’re looking forward 25 years, what will the role of Fleet Managers be? 

“Well, there’s going to be less Fleet and more Mobility. We will see shrinking fleets. We’re now living in a hybrid environment in terms of working, so fewer people need a car. So we clearly see a shift in both the demand and the offering. That shift is going to dominate the future.” 

And will there still be Fleet Managers in the future? 

“They’re going to be Mobility Managers. But there will still be someone inside the company who takes care of the mobility strategy. Because that is something that you should keep in the company. You can outsource a lot, but not that!”

Authored by: Steven Schoefs