Managing vehicle fleets – the people, the vehicles, and the future
Lee Walters manages a large fleet of vehicles for Forestry England.
Lee has managed fleets of over 2000 pieces of kit both in the UK and overseas. The vehicles have ranged from company cars to 44-ton trucks, off road equipment including Caterpillar D9s, JCBs and cable laying trailers.
Path to mechanical engineering
Could you give a brief description of your background and how you moved from being a hands-on mechanic to managing entire fleets?
In each role, I know what people in my team should be doing and more importantly aren’t doing. So it is easy to manage them.
Was there a family or friend who suggested this career?
My father drove for the military during the war (WW2). Then he drove heavy goods vehicles when he came back into civilian life. My brother was an engineer in the Royal Navy. There’s also boat building in the family, and I love working with wood. So, it seems that this career was in my blood.
Are you generally good at fixing things not just motor vehicles?
Yes, I’ll fix anything if it needs it. I like the challenge and mechanical skills are all transferable.
What sort of fleets have you managed?
I started managing dangerous goods for BOC Gases with a fleet size in my region of 500. In my career, I’ve managed everything from cars and vans up to 44-ton trucks.
I can only dream but wouldn’t mind a classic Aston Martin sports car. But to be honest if a vehicle is reliable, I’m happy. I like to know that I will get from A to B.
What exactly do you do for Forestry England?
I lead a team of mechanics who are based in workshops and also utilise them as mobile fitters who go out to our district customers to do planned and unplanned work. The equipment they work on is very bespoke and our staff need to be highly trained to carry out this work.
I am home based for 80% of the time in this role but carry out site visits when required to meet both internal and external customers.
What are the major issues which impact you – for example – flooding, forest fires?
The challenge is logistics. That covers both people and equipment. To be able to manage staff numbers and the availability of equipment for both on and off-road vehicles.
This year with the extreme summer we have had, forest fires have been on the radar from the start of the summer months. We know the impact of having equipment working in forests and woodlands. The internal combustion engine can generate a lot of heat. If the dry foliage/debris get into the engine compartment, it could cause a fire, and spread quickly. The due diligence from our equipment operators has mitigated any potential fires. Fortunately, we haven’t had a major incident in 2022.
Is there any of the forestry equipment which is new to you?
We have Forestry Harvesters and Forwarders that cut and strip and store the logs into large bundles ready to have them collected and loaded onto the trailers.
How much of your time is spent managing your team, and how much on other things?
Most of my time is spent on management now as the team are so spread out across the country.
One key part of the role is to conduct training reviews to see what is needed and who needs it. This is covering all the changes we see in the industry going from the internal combustion engines to the next generation for the likes of electric vehicles that will be coming in over the next few years.
We then cover any training needs whether in Health and Safety or to do with the type of fleet we have in the business. We would look at the need to bring in external providers when and where needed.
Key challenge at present
What’s the key challenge at the moment?
A current focus is retention of staff as we want to keep all the good mechanics in our workshops, and we know the market is very competitive. However, a lot of the people who work for Forestry England are passionate about forests and woodlands and their different roles they do, and so they are loyal because they know how important the forests are and will be to England in the coming years. There is a lot of pride in what we do as we provide places for people to walk and relax, which was especially important during Covid and the lockdowns.
If you are passionate about working for Forestry England, then these are benefits to think about.
Taking a walk through the forest can benefit physical health in addition to improving overall mental state; spending time in forests has been shown to have genuine physical health benefits.
People say they feel less stressed in forests, but it turns out that this is linked to an actual reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Most challenging role
What has been your most challenging job to date?
I took a job in Saudi Arabia for a dairy company called Almarai who are the biggest integrated dairy company in the World. My role was to oversee all aspects of fleet management for all the 1,300 assorted vehicles from company cars to 44-ton reefer (refrigerated container) combinations.
The fleet ran 24/7 365 days a year and in 2009 they covered some 109,000,000 kms.
I had run fleets before, so the challenge here was to learn a new way of doing business. I had to change my mindset and learn a new culture.
There was also a challenge as we worked in 50 degrees (centigrade) and often travelled in sandstorms in certain months of the year.
For this job, my wife and youngest daughter accompanied me. They adapted to compound living, and my daughter was in international school in Riyadh for a year.
I moved to work in Dubai the following year and to work for DEWA (Dubai Electricity and Water Authority). My role was to oversee all fleet activities for both on and off-road equipment. This was an unaccompanied move and my family stayed in the UK for the two years I was contracted for the role.
Challenges of the industry
What challenges are you finding from the aftermath of Covid and the ongoing situation in Ukraine?
The key thing is ordering parts and equipment. Lead times have been increasing and now there is no guarantee of dates especially if they are being shipped from overseas. Before Covid we could expect a new vehicle in circa 6 months, now the lead time can be anywhere between 12 – 18 months. This is the case everywhere not just for us and needs to be managed appropriately and working with all stake holders is essential. It is also having a knock-on effect for recruitment, as we have to know that we can provide a vehicle for staff we hire, and whether it’s a company vehicle or we need to look at using hire vehicles.
How much has the increased fuel price impacted companies with fleets of vehicles. Is there anything that can help?
Like most businesses who use vehicles with diesel engines we have been impacted over the years. This graph puts the increases into perspective.
Making a future star
Apart from a good technical background, what sort of personality traits and skills are ideal for working as a fleet manager?
The key thing is to be a good listener.
It’s not rocket science as this is a people business. So to be a good fleet manager one needs to get the best out of the staff. You need to understand their needs and concerns. If you do this, then you should be able to get the best out of them and retain them.
A good manager should make judgements which are beneficial to everyone and to the organisation as a whole.
I think it also helps to have worked hands-on in the roles you are managing.
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