There are probably few between us that were actually around in the late 1930s when our new industry was born. I was 10-years-old in a one-room rural Michigan school (20-some kids for grades K-8) and a mile walk from our farm.
That’s when the real “fleet” pioneers such as Zollie Frank (and brother-in-law Armund Schoen) created Wheels in Chicago, while Sam Lee, also in Chicago, and the Robinson brothers in Philadelphia were among the first to craft the fleet concept commercially.
It was fate or karma that, in 1954, I should end up in Chicago working for Fleet Owner magazine at McGraw-Hill covering big trucks. This was at a time when a new car sold for under $1,500, gasoline was 21 cents per gallon, and the U.S. average annual income was just under $4,000.
It was a great time to immerse into the fleet and leasing market. The auto companies were formalizing their fleet sales departments, more leasing firms were established, and the volume of fleet sales became significant. AALA was formed in 1955 and NAFA was born in 1957, as was the Ford FALS (Ford Authorized Leasing System) with Jim Larkin driving it.
During my advertising sales calls for Fleet Owner, one of my challenges was with Al Fitzpatrick, who was the fleet sales manager for Studebaker in South Bend. They made pickups as well as cars. He didn’t see the value of promoting his small trucks or cars in the “big truck” market. That’s exactly where the idea for Automotive Fleet was born 51 years ago.
In writing our editorials for this commemorative issue, Mike Antich took recapping the latest years and I’m reminiscing about the earlier ones; and I’ve put some thought on it.
I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.
-William Allen White
The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.
Yesterday is a cancelled check; tomorrow is a promissory note; today is the only cash you have — so spend it wisely.
Some of the veterans choose to opine on how much similarity there still is with managing a fleet now versus 50 years ago. Well, I recall those earlier years and humbly disagree. I believe there’s a world of difference.
Back then, depending on the decade, we were purchasing vehicles for a fraction of where we are today ($1,500 versus $15,000). We had much fewer choices of brands and models, not to mention a very limited number of options. Incentives were small and there was a narrow margin of variance in resale. There weren’t too many monumental decisions that needed to be made. No one was worrying about HR and adjustable lumbar support, emissions, mpg, or distracting high-tech stuff. It was neat and clean.
Compare that to today with the myriad of choices in selection, the financial budget restraints, the technical data shared by the OEMs, the availability of support and partnerships with outsourcers and suppliers, and all kinds of educational opportunities. Resale values obtained and mpg realized are now huge cost items that alone cause stomach ulcers and stressful headaches.
Never mentioned, but significantly different, is the interaction of buyers and sellers. The relationship factor has markedly changed. Today, there’s often an underlying feeling (almost adversarial and rarely on the surface) versus a genuine fellowship camaraderie we used to enjoy. There were three-hour lunches (with spirits) and “business dinners” that lasted longer. Somehow, we got the job done and felt good about our relationships.
Today, it’s usually “wham-bam,” little time for casual banter, the need for immediate answers, and not too many “thank yous.” Our culture has changed, and we’re meeting way too many “suits” (buttoned-down people) and not enough “business friends.”
After all these years, I still love “fleet.” I have been blessed to know and work with the early pioneers in our industry (many now in the Fleet Hall of Fame) and cherish our memories together.
We are all fortunate to have new, bright, innovative leaders and industry members in fleet who keep creating new and better solutions for us, no matter what the culture. It is what it is.