Looking back: Part 2: Two decades of fleet management
July 1, 2002
As Truck News officially comes of age and celebrates its 21st birthday this year, we decided it would be appropriate to take a look back at how the industry has evolved since we first hit the street.F...
As Truck News officially comes of age and celebrates its 21st birthday this year, we decided it would be appropriate to take a look back at how the industry has evolved since we first hit the street.
Focusing on three key areas of concern – maintenance, fleet operation and turning the wheels for a living – Truck News presents a three-part series on how the business has grown and evolved over the past two-plus decades.
This second vignette examines how life as a fleet manager has transformed since 1981 as seen through the eyes of Allan Robison, president and chief executive officer of one of Canada’s premier fleets – Reimer Express Lines…
WINNIPEG, Man. – Allan Robison first got involved in the world of trucking as an 11-year old helping out around the shop of his father’s trucking company in Reno, Nev.
He hasn’t looked back since, and has managed a number of trucking operations of all shapes and sizes in both Canada and the U.S.
A regulated bloodbath
He’s seen a world of change throughout his years in the biz, and he insists some of the biggest challenges facing fleet managers have come about during the past 21 years.
Robison, like most in his trade, says deregulation was perhaps the most monumental challenge to ever face fleet managers.
“The big emphasis in those years (before deregulation) was just trying to obtain operating certificates,” says Robison.
“Because of the fact we were regulated, our prices were the same … You couldn’t go in and cut somebody’s rate without going through a bureau and having everyone approve it.”
Operating certificates were usually purchased from existing fleets, but occasionally a fleet could apply for a new one from the government.
Either way, with government-set rates in place, it was extremely difficult to compete with existing fleets.
“All that really mattered in those days was basically service,” says Robison.
“If you had the same authority as somebody else, you just tried to do a better job than they did.”
When the government decided to cut trucking companies loose and allow a free market, many trucking firms failed to adapt to the change.
“It was a bloodbath that took place roughly at the end of the 1980s through the early 1990s,” says Robison.
“Carriers just dropped like flies. If you weren’t a good operator that got your costs where they belonged when the prices went down, you went out.”
In fact, of the 35 largest Canadian carriers in 1975, Reimer is one of only three that survived deregulation.
“I have to say in retrospect, having been through it all my life, those days were actually a lot easier and I didn’t know it at the time,” says Robison. “Being a really good manager of your assets and of your costs was not quite as important those days as it is today.”
Although operating a fleet became more challenging after deregulation, truck manufacturers have gone to great lengths to ensure fleet owners have fewer mechanical headaches to deal with.
“In those days, even though it was getting better, our equipment was never as good as it is now,” says Robison.
He says everything from tires, to the trucks themselves have gotten significantly more reliable.
“It’s rare that our company ever goes out and tows anybody in because of a mechanical failure and it’s rare for us to have real bad tire problems like we had back in those days,” recalls Robison.
On the flip side, fuel prices weren’t much of a concern in 1981, compared to today.
“The price of fuel wasn’t all that bad and the engines were not extremely efficient so how much you poured into the tank wasn’t as important as it is today,” says Robison.
Hello Mr. Chips
As Truck News first hit the street, fleets such as Reimer were just getting familiar with the computer technology that forever changed the face of the industry.
“Canada was a little bit further behind the U.S. in getting the larger computer systems working,” says Robison, who at the time was working for a U.S.-based fleet. “Today, if you don’t have (computer technology) you’re out.”
When the ’90s rolled around, people in trucking started talking about the driver shortage. The traditional pools of drivers such as farms and the military were drying up. Reimer addressed this concern by opening its own driver school.
“We found we needed a supply of good drivers and we found most drivers we were getting weren’t trained properly,” says Robison.
Reimer was wasting money training inexperienced drivers on the job.
“We thought we would start our own school, which we feel is the finest in the country,” says Robison.
“Would it have been needed in 1980? Maybe not as badly because the supply of drivers in 1980 was greater than it is today.”
Another challenge he says is staring down fleet managers today is balancing efficiency with environmental concerns.
“We’re having to make it cleaner and cleaner and cleaner, so we’re losing some productivity out of our engines,” says Robison.
All told, the challenges of the past two decades have put many fleet managers out of a job. It’s been essential for fleet managers to constantly adapt to the ever-evolving industry, he adds.
“Today it’s extremely competitive,” says Robison.
“You have to know your costs, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to know where you’re making money and where you’re not … if you don’t know that, you’re going to go out of business.” n
– Next month, Truck News examines how life behind the wheel has changed over the last two decades.