‘Drivers are our customers’

by James Menzies

Running a fleet maintenance department can be a thankless job. Many fleets look at maintenance as a non-revenue-generating – albeit necessary – expense, while drivers often think the department is out to get them with every breakdown.

However, Chris Iveson, the 2015 Canadian Fleet Maintenance Manager of the Year, has fostered a strong relationship with drivers at Challenger Motor Freight, by looking at them as his department’s customers.

“Our customer in maintenance is the driver,” Iveson told Truck News during a lengthy interview at Challenger’s shop after winning the award. “If our mechanics take good care of

Chris Iveson
Chris Iveson, Canadian Fleet Maintenance Manager of the Year

the equipment, that in turn will allow our customer – which is the driver – to go out and service our customer. We understand the driver is our customer, so we have things like surveys. Every time a truck comes into the shop, we put a five-question survey into the truck. We have the driver rate his experience – how he felt the service was – and then we rate ourselves. We measure ourselves against it. It becomes one of our KPIs that we look at on a weekly basis. That’s big for us. I don’t walk across the parking lot, ever, without having a conversation with a driver. We make sure that we’re fully engaged. We put on barbecues for them that are maintenance-sponsored barbecues and we let them know we’re here to support them.”

Iveson was selected as the Canadian Fleet Maintenance Manager of the Year, an award sponsored by Volvo, which aims to recognize an exceptional fleet maintenance manager. They’re graded on “the scheduled maintenance program of the company, the quality and frequency of training programs, the major accomplishments and innovations of the individual and the nominee’s contribution to the industry and community in general.”

Iveson oversees more than 150 staff and 4,500 pieces of equipment across Challenger’s network of four maintenance facilities.

He actively promotes the profession, which should come as no surprise given his own background.

“I had a fantastic high school auto shop teacher who I’m still in contact with today,” Iveson recalled. “He got me really interested in the automotive business and fixing things.”

Iveson’s first job fixing trucks came soon after completing high school, completing an apprenticeship at a local Esso station.

“I worked my way through my apprenticeship and once I got my licence, I very quickly got into management. I became a service manager probably two years after I had my licence and shortly after that I bought my first service station. I had bays and fixed cars and had mechanics working for me,” Iveson recalled.

Meanwhile, his father was a truck driver and so it often fell on the younger Iveson to repair his truck on evenings and weekends. Iveson had mixed results as business owner, and eventually joined Challenger in 2008, but while he never became a service station tycoon, the experience of running his own business is invaluable today.

“I’m known as the guy who spends every dollar as if it was his own,” Iveson said. “In fleet maintenance, that’s very important.”

Managing a fleet as diverse and geographically scattered as Challenger’s isn’t easy.

The company operates across North America with multiple divisions hauling everything from wind turbines to trash, to general freight and now even gravel.

“I would say the most difficult part about maintaining this fleet is dealing with the issues that happen out on the road,” Iveson said. “We do everything we possibly can to mitigate that from happening, but when it does happen it’s very challenging. When we get into Western Canada, it’s very difficult to find (service) locations. Challenger has a great presence here in Ontario, but we’re not so well known in the Calgary area, Winnipeg, Edmonton, so we don’t get quite the swing with the dealers. We end up with extended wait times. Frankly, we often have to get the OEMs involved to help us expedite repairs when we’re out there.”

The inconsistent service levels Challenger has experienced make it all the more important to do as much preventive maintenance as possible at its own facilities.

“Having four shops strategically located across the country…we are able to look after most of the fleet at home,” Iveson explained. “We probably do about 20% of our work outsourced or on the road.”

Speaking of home, Challenger’s Cambridge shop is treated as such. It’s about 10 years old now but looks newer. It’s brightly lit, clean-swept and obsessive compulsively organized.

This is something Iveson clearly takes pride in as he gives me a tour, pointing out how each tool has a clearly labeled spot where it’s been strategically housed to reduce the time technicians spend trying to find things.

Iveson interacts easily with technicians and says he tries to spend at least two hours per shift on the shop floor so he’s attuned to issues his staff is dealing with.

Finding and keeping technicians is a struggle, Iveson admits, but his tireless advocacy and outreach with local schools has resulted in a steady supply of apprentices. He has found success in attracting experienced techicians by reaching out via social media.

“Here in Cambridge, I can tell you every single mechanic that I’ve hired has been through social media,” Iveson said. “Apprentices are not such a problem for me to get because I put a great deal of effort into building relationships with apprentices. I work very closely with Conestoga College and I sit on a couple advisory boards.”

Iveson has discovered that bringing trucks and equipment to local schools – or inviting students to visit Challenger’s shop – has resonated with budding technicians and often sparks an interest in pursuing a career there.

“For a lot of people who want to get into this trade, it’s visual,” Iveson explained. “I try to always make sure there’s something there they can see that’s cool. For example, at Conestoga College on a number of occasions I’ve taken over a 50-wheel Schnabel trailer with three motors on it and independent steering and all that kind of stuff, just to show them this trade is not about boxes on wheels anymore. I make the point of letting them know the ‘grease monkey’ is done. I let them know half my staff don’t even get dirty in a day – they’re basically standing at a PC all day, reading engine codes and diagnosing what’s happening. For the guys that are grunts – there’s always grunts out there too, that want a career – we have that for them, too. I make sure they know there’s something for everybody.”

Once he’s drawn in aspiring young technicians, Iveson said it’s equally important to keep them engaged. Doing so requires a softer touch than in the past.

“Years ago, when I was an apprentice, you learned by fear,” he said. “If you did something wrong, the mechanic that was teaching you would probably hit you or something. It was barbaric. Today, it’s a little bit different. Gen Y’s difficult to deal with, it really is. I’m lucky in that I have a couple of sons that are in that age group, so I’m fairly intimate with their needs and wants. A lot of the kids that are on the floor, I kind of put a fatherly face on when I’m dealing with them. I talk to them with respect and I continue pushing them in the direction of success. They are different. They want to walk around and have a cell phone strapped to their waist and they want to spend their lunch hours texting or going on Facebook or whatever it is they want to do, and we have to build that in. We have to make sure that as they change, we also change and adapt.”

The ability to change and adapt has become an essential skill for technicians, as the pace of technological change has accelerated.

Trucks have never been so complex and in recent years new technologies have brought with them myriad challenges in the shop. Iveson, however, relishes the challenges new technology has spawned.

“I’m very excited about it,” he said. “It’s not frightening at all. It’s so impressive. At Challenger, we’re very much early adopters of technology. By the end of this year, more than 50% of our trucks will have collision mitigation systems on them, which is pretty much unheard of right now.”

Iveson also welcomes the new generation remote diagnostic capabilities, which can help him monitor the health of the fleet from anywhere.

“Let me go back a couple of years to when we switched over to EPA10 engines and the Check Engine light was not something we could have a piece of tape over anymore,” he recalled. “When the Check Engine light came on, you will shut down. Having remote diagnostics then was extremely helpful because it was like a spy in the cab for us. We were able to tell the drivers through satellite ‘We know your Check Engine light is on, we need you to get to this dealer so we can get your truck looked at.’ It was extremely helpful then. Now, a couple years later, the drivers are very familiar with it. If the Check Engine light is on they know they won’t be sitting on the side of the road in Wawa. A lot of the codes that come through are not shutdown codes, but it allows us to set up maintenance as they come back into the shop so we can put notes on trucks and then address the issues. It’s almost as good as oil sampling; it gives you that head’s up of things that are going to happen.”

Iveson is acutely aware that keeping trucks operational not only improves the company’s productivity, but also helps it keep drivers satisfied. This is also why he involves drivers in the spec’ing process when new trucks are being ordered.

“We’ve really evolved our process, and look at the truck spec’ we bring in as a tool for retention of our drivers,” Iveson said.

“This year, we actually brought trucks in from all the different OEMs and we had drivers go through the trucks and rate them and let us know what they liked about them, what they didn’t like about them. We also put a spec’ committee together. We had people from warranty, from parts, mechanics off the shop floor, operational people – lots of different people have a vested interest in the truck and we actually went through the spec’ line by line. It was very driver-driven this year.”

The new procedure has also resulted in a different mix of trucks coming into the fleet.

Challenger has recently placed orders for more than 100 Volvos with bigger bunks than was previously spec’d, 187 Freightliner Cascadias, 20 Kenworths and, for the first time, 80 Peterbilts.

Some of those selections were clearly made with driver feedback in mind.

So with drivers being included in the spec’ing process – and treated to maintenance-sponsored barbecues – does that mean they give back to the maintenance department by taking greater care of their vehicles?

“There are two different types of drivers out there today,” Iveson said. “There’s the old-school truck drivers who are very appreciative of things like that but there are also a lot of drivers out there who feel the truck is their office and they pay a lease for that office and when it’s broken, they expect the landlord to fix it. We have a fantastic rapport with our drivers. Most of them support us to the nth degree. They understand sometimes our crystal ball does break, but we’re always putting our best foot forward and we always try to make sure that the piece of equipment they need to make their living is up and running as quickly as possible for them.”

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