They go by many titles — fleet manager, maintenance manager, director of maintenance, VP of maintenance — but no matter the title, the job they do has emerged as one of the most important in the North American trucking industry. Like a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps, a chief petty officer in the Navy, or a chief master sergeant in the Army or Air Force, all arrows in a trucking company point to the maintenance manager.
It’s a tough job that calls for an increasingly complex array of skills and talents. A maintenance manager has to be able to work with company executives on strategic planning. But he or she also has to be able to make split-second, minute-by-minute decisions when a truck is down. Maintenance managers must effectively communicate with the fleet’s front office executives, customers, vendors, dealers and truck OEMs, as well as technicians and drivers. They need to understand parts procurement, technology trends, total cost of ownership, preventive maintenance schedules, vehicle telematics and untold other aspects of running a fleet.
So, it’s not surprising that it can be hard to find the right person to step into the job when a seasoned fleet manager decides to hang up their spurs.
For many years, the top tactic has been simply luring away someone else’s maintenance manager. In some ways, fleet managers are like football coaches. A coach who does poorly with one team can turn around and win a championship with owners and players that better match his or her management style and play calling.
But like the famed “coaching carousel” that takes place at the end of every football season, regularly hiring, firing and hiring fleet managers takes its toll on fleets. It’s a position that can bring either stability or chaos to fleet operations. And too many managers with too many different plans and management styles being implemented in too short a time period can seriously cripple even the best-run fleets.
Promoting from within, however, is easier said than done. There are some problems associated with hiring in-house that experts say fleets aren’t doing enough to overcome.
For starters, the business/company-employee dynamic has changed dramatically over the past few years. Partly this is due to generational differences. Many younger employees are inclined to change jobs every few years.
Moreover, many people in the national talent pool, irrespective of their generation, are starting to put more emphasis on their family lives and private time, instead of allowing a job and a company to define who they are and how they live their lives.
So, while growing your own fleet managers from within is a good idea, it’s going to take time, commitment and cultural changes for both your business and your management team.
Building Your Bench: Promoting From Within to Build Fleet Managers
Over the past 10 to 15 years, Bruce Stockton, president of the fleet consulting firm Stockton Solutions and a longtime fleet maintenance manager at several companies, says he’s fielded innumerable calls from fleets looking for a new maintenance manager.
“And it’s not because someone was retiring,” he says. “Usually, it was because they’d hired a new fleet manager from another company, and suddenly their costs were going up. So, they decided they’d hired the wrong person — when, in reality, these front-office people just didn’t understand all the changes in the maintenance world and didn’t understand what they needed to be focused on.”
Many fleet executives are thinking there must be a better way to find their next fleet manager. The obvious solution: Grow your own fleet managers and promote them from within the company.
“I think fleets have always had the desire to promote from within if they can,” says Joe Puff, vice president of truck technology and maintenance at NationaLease. “Doing so is good for company growth and employee morale. And from a practical point of view, you have a great deal of knowledge about the candidates for the job. You’re not basing a huge hiring decision on just a couple of job interviews.”
Randy Obermeyer, vice president of safety and maintenance for Indiana-based Online Transport, says his goal is to be sure that no supervisory, management, director level, or VP level is hired from outside the company.
“I look for potential leaders inside the organization and then intentionally test them through day-to-day activities,” says Obermeyer, who’s just wrapping up his term as chairman of the ATA’s Technology & Maintenance Council. “I have many long conversations with them about how the company is doing, [about] what I see as their strengths and weaknesses. I make sure they can see a path to more if they want it. I send them to other shops to lead when possible. I make them part of an acquisition team when we purchase another company. They are all tests, yet steps toward the next level.”
And TMC is there to help, says Executive Director Robert Braswell.
“Fleets and service providers in vehicle maintenance are working more to develop maintenance leaders internally, especially given the labor shortages and retirements/replacements that everyone is experiencing in the industry,” he says.
To that end, TMC members have developed several recommended practices on how to best do that, including RP 1617, Developing and Leveraging Next Generation Leaders. It applies to fleet and service provider organizations responsible for commercial vehicle maintenance.
Braswell explains this TMC RP offers guidelines for a generic, comprehensive roadmap to develop next-generation leaders. It also aids in succession planning, planning for skills needed to fill key leadership roles in the company, and diversity building blocks for success that allows for organizational creativity and continued growth.
One factor that is sometimes overlooked is the willingness to relocate, says Winston Minchew, maintenance training manager for North Carolina-based less-than-truckload carrier Old Dominion Freight Line.
“I often mention to young technicians that the willingness to relocate is one of the fastest ways to climb the ladder, along with an education,” he says.
A two-year degree in diesel technology is the base educational footing for technicians wanting to move into management, Minchew says. But he also recommends those interested in maintenance management get a four-year degree in some type of business management field to make themselves more competitive when an opportunity arises.
Identifying Technicians with Maintenance Manager Potential
If you’ve decided the time has come to home-grow your own maintenance executives, then you have to start by identifying promising candidates. For years, the traditional thinking was that one needed to look no farther than the shop floor for the next generation of maintenance managers.
There’s still debate on that point. Otho Ries, Arkansas area truck shop manager for Peco Foods, started out turning wrenches. He believes being a technician is a prerequisite for being a successful maintenance manager.
“I 100% believe that,” Ries says flatly. “I just can’t fathom the idea of having a manager telling me what to do, when they’ve never done my job a day in their lives — not even for a short time. They don’t understand the details of doing that work, or how things can change or go downhill during a day. They’re just not prepared to make informed decisions about that job, and they end up giving you an impossible workload to complete because they don’t understand what’s possible and what’s asking too much of you.”
Maverick Transportation in North Little Rock, Arkansas, also tends to draw maintenance managers from its technician pool, says Brent Hilton, director of maintenance for the open-deck carrier. Management pays close attention to promising young technicians and works with them as they progress along their career paths.
“Each shift supervisor knows their technicians very well,” Hilton explains. “They learn and know what capabilities each one has by working with them daily on the floor and in training. When job openings come up, a shift supervisor or service manager will recommend an individual, based off their capabilities. A standout technician will most of the time be promoted to a shift supervisor position when there are openings. Some start out at a warranty or road-assist position to start adapting them to the office environment and begin teaching them the processes of their new job duties.”
Do Maintenance Managers Have to be Former Techs?
There is, however, a new school of thought emerging: maintenance professionals who think finding a person with the right skillset for a management role is more important than finding someone with extensive experience on the shop floor.
The tendency for years, NationaLease’s Puff says, has been to take the best technician on the shop floor and move him or her up into the fleet manager’s job when an opening occurs. But just because someone is good at what they do doesn’t mean they will make a good manager. Many technicians are a lot like truck drivers. They often are solitary workers who are mission-oriented, dislike being over-supervised, and aren’t used to communicating extensively with managers or co-workers.
“A good technician may be capable of doing a good job as a service manager,” Puff says. “But it’s not a given. I believe the key factors needed to be successful in that position are interpersonal skills. Yes, a maintenance manager needs to know and understand vehicle components and have basic mechanical concepts. But unfortunately, star technicians who are wonderful in those areas are not always great working with other people.”
When Stockton consults with fleets seeking help in developing talent from within, he says, many learn pretty quickly that (to use another football analogy) they don’t have a very deep bench built up on the shop floor of people who can move up into management positions.
“But what I tell them is to look beyond the shop floor,” he says. “As long as a potential candidate understands your company’s culture and has been successful in it, there’s no reason you shouldn’t consider them for a maintenance manager position.”
This could be a controversial take, but Stockton is adamant.
“If you’ve got a solid candidate in your accounting office, safety and compliance, recruiting or some other department — and they’re loyal and a great employee — you should absolutely consider them for a maintenance manager position,” he says.
Puff says the most important skill a fleet manager must have goes beyond simple communication.
“A good shop manager needs to have the ability to understand and empathize with people,” he says. “It’s so important for them to be able to read people and understand where they’re coming from. That’s how things get done in the maintenance world. And that really make sense when you look at all the many different roles a maintenance manager plays, and the many different people they interact with on daily basis.”
Embrace Diversity in Hiring
Finally, fleets hiring today would do well to consider that the job market has changed dramatically over the past several years, Stockton cautions — often in ways that may seem alien to Baby Boomer and early Gen X managers.
“You really need to embrace diversity,” he says. “Just like you need to be willing to go outside the shop floor to hire, you need to be willing to consider every race, gender, and people who might not have fit the ‘corporate mold’ back when you were starting out. Individuality is a highly prized aspect of youth culture today. Don’t let appearances cost you getting the perfect person for that job, because they don’t dress and look like a manager did 20 years ago.”
This is a point that hits home for Ries, a Gen Xer, who has a long ponytail, a biker’s goatee, a passion for thrash metal rock and an extensive collection of exotic and venomous snakes.
“The way you look — long hair, tattoos… anything that doesn’t fall under the corporate umbrella of ‘clean cut,’ is still a barrier for young people looking to move up in fleet,” he says. “I spent a lot of time and hard work proving myself. And I always had to outwork everyone around me — in some places two- and three-fold — to prove myself, before I found a fleet that accepted me for who I was. I always advanced. But it always took me a lot more to accomplish the things I wanted to. After a while, I’d get frustrated and decide to move on. And that was their loss.”
Understand that flexibility in the workplace is critical for young people, too, Puff adds.
“Our industry is pretty far behind the curve when it comes to recognizing these trends,” he admits. “And that has a lot to do with the type of non-stop business we’re in.”
But if you look at progressive companies around the country now, he says, the most successful ones have all found a way to make the workplace fun.
“A lot of that has to do with recognizing that for many young people today, their identity is not as tied up in their work, their company, their industry or their job the way it was for older generations,” Puff explains. “I try to coach my people to focus on productivity, instead of punching a time clock or putting in a lot of late-night hours. Recognize that people have family, friends and lives that are important to them, and try to build some flexibility into your operations to reflect that. If you want to keep talented young people around long enough to develop their skills and move them into management positions, burning them out before they’re ready to move up is just going to give another fleet, somewhere else, a brand-new maintenance manager who was trained by you.”
Puff says he is himself a baby boomer. So, he understands that focus on a life away from work can “feel like a slap in the face.”
“But it’s not about that — and that’s not how you need to look at it.”
This article appeared as the cover story in the Janurary/Feburary 2023 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.
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