When tragedy was visited upon Lloyd De Merchant’s family when he was just eight years of age, it set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to him receiving the Canadian fleet maintenance industry’s highest honour.
De Merchant’s successful career was highlighted June 18 when he was presented with the Volvo Trucks Canada Fleet Maintenance Manager of the Year Award at just 43 years of age.
An area maintenance manager with Penske Truck Leasing, overseeing 8,000 pieces of equipment over a network of 22 maintenance facilities across Eastern Canada, De Merchant traces his career back to the horrible death of his six-year-old sister.
De Merchant’s sister and her twin brother were walking back from an ice-skating field trip when she dropped her glove on the road and ran back to grab it. A transport truck barreled through a red light, striking and killing her. The truck’s brakes had failed.
De Merchant, eight years old at the time, was in the nearby park and saw what had happened. Soon after, his father started a trucking company; a curious career choice since the family didn’t have any trucking roots.
“I think it was his way of dealing with (the grief),” De Merchant said in a recent interview with Truck News in his Mississauga office.
It soon became obvious the older De Merchant was vigilant about safety. When the trucks were parked on Saturday, De Merchant’s father would personally inspect every one of them, tag them, and then require the operators to fix any defects before heading back on the road Monday morning.
“My father would go in on Saturday when the drivers were at home, even the brokers, and he would do complete inspections on every single one of their trucks so he knew whose trucks were safe to go out on Monday and he’d have tags hanging on every one of the windows saying come see me, come see me, and he would have a list of repairs they needed to make,” Lloyd De Merchant recalls. “I think that’s where I got the safety part of it from. He said ‘Nobody will operate for me unless they’re running top-notch equipment. When he got into the transportation business and with his Saturday inspections, it clicked in.”
The younger De Merchant began working for his father as a mechanic and his dad’s commitment to safety rubbed off.
De Merchant’s younger brother – twin sibling to the sister they lost – would go on to become a professional driver and still works in the trucking industry today. The elder De Merchant eventually sold the family trucking company but still drives occasionally. And Lloyd De Merchant embarked on a career as a technician, which has seen him rise quickly through the ranks at Penske. Each of them went on to make a contribution to trucking safety in their own small ways as a sort of unspoken tribute to their sister and daughter.
De Merchant became a licensed mechanic as soon as he was able – he did his first clutch job at age 15 – and worked for his father’s trucking company, which eventually merged with a nearby garage owned by his father’s friend. For a time, De Merchant worked two full-time jobs to learn as much as he could about equipment maintenance. But his meteoric rise began when he joined Penske in 1996, working out of what was then the leasing giant’s second Canadian shop, at Hwy. 401 and Dixie Rd.
Joining the Penske organization was an eye-opener for De Merchant, who cut his teeth in what was once a typically rough-and-tumble shop environment. Penske taught De Merchant to focus on the human side of the business, to encourage continuous learning and it also showed to him that he could take his career as far as he wanted.
“I came from an industry where shops would push, push and push you. They needed more out of you, where Penske said ‘No, we’re not going to work you to the bone. We need you to do training too so you can better yourself, because you’re our future’,” De Merchant recalls. “They were slowing me down because I was trying to go too fast, and it paid off. My boss finally came to me and said ‘You’re the right person for a supervisory job’ and that’s when it clicked in that I can go as high up this ladder as I want.”
De Merchant became a service manager for nine months, then moved to another shop and managed it for nine months overseeing nearly 1,000 units as well as two customers sites. After a year there, he became district service manager for just 30 days before being promoted to area maintenance manager for Eastern Canada.
Managing such a broad shop network means De Merchant is on the road much of the time – some months, he’s been home for just four weekdays – but he believes strongly in being there on the shop floor for support as much as possible. If he needs to visit a location in Eastern Canada, he gives up his Sunday so he can fly out the day before and be there first thing Monday morning. He is a believer in the Management By Walking Around management model.
“Growing up in the industry, the boss would come to me and say ‘This is how it’s done,’ but he would never explain why this is how it’s done,” De Merchant says. “And if you’re not walking the floor, how can you pat them on the back? When I was coming up through the industry before Penske, there was not a lot of patting on the back. You called a technician in when he did something wrong. When I went to Penske it was an eye-opener because I had people coming over and telling me I did a good job.”
Another important reason to being visible on the shop floor and not cooped up in an office is that it allows De Merchant to connect with his team.
“I can tell my people my door’s always open, but do you think they’re going to come up here?” he asks. “When I’m in the shop, they’ll talk to me. It helps me understand my technicians and the emotions in the shop. If they’re stressed or they’re tired or they have something going wrong at home – that’s what I care about.”
De Merchant’s hands-on coaching style includes teaching technicians not only how to fix something, but why to do it a certain way. He’s also all ears when someone else has a suggestion on how to do something better. But ensuring best practices are shared across such a broad network of facilities isn’t easy. Technology has made it possible, De Merchant says.
“Technology is the key thing that keeps me going,” he says. “It lets me know when something is going to go sideways or if something is needed. We have the ability to drill down into almost anything, so usually we can figure it out before the location sees anything and it’s corrected and doesn’t affect our customers, and that’s the key thing.”
Maintaining a lease/rental fleet means that there’s a customer service element to De Merchant’s job that not all fleet maintenance managers need to worry about. It’s not just a matter of keeping trucks up and running, De Merchant must also ensure each of Penske’s customers are using the most appropriate vehicles for their specific application.
“I sit in on customer meetings and have annual customer reviews to get their feedback,” De Merchant says. “I go out into customer yards and take a look at their equipment and ask, are there changes we should make? We wear many hats.”
The biggest evolution De Merchant has noticed in terms of customer requirements is their demand for “one-stop-shopping.”
“They don’t want to go to one place to get their vehicle repaired and have to go somewhere else for body damage,” he said. “They want someone to manage that for them and I want to be able to take that truck in for whatever it needs.”
De Merchant credits much of his success to his listening skills. He’ll always listen to a second opinion. When the Ministry of Transportation said it wanted to come into the Mississauga shop to inspect Penske’s equipment, De Merchant rolled out the red carpet.
“I said it’s a fantastic idea, I’d like another set of eyes,” he recalls. “We had them inspect the units in our ready line and I said ‘Why don’t you inspect those ones over there in the service line?’ They said since they’re in the service line they obviously need stuff and I said, ‘Yes, I’ll share that with you. Tell me what else they need.’ They went over them and said they were very impressed and that made me happy. I told my dad about that and he said ‘That’s why you do the job’.”
De Merchant says the people around him, including past managers and the people he has hired, have been a key to his success. Like all shops, the ones De Merchant oversees struggle to attract young technicians. But he’s optimistic about the future prospects of the industry and its ability to attract new blood.
“Some of the stuff I see these young kids doing is unbelievable,” he says. “Now, when you bring them into a shop atmosphere, you say ‘You get to play with a computer all day,’ and do you how excited these guys are?”
The bigger challenge is conveying that message to high school students and just as importantly, their parents. De Merchant visits with high schools such as Bramalea Secondary School and does his part to promote the industry.
“Years ago, I was called a grease monkey,” De Merchant says. “That’s what they referred to us as. Now, we’re technicians. I tell parents, ‘Your child is not going to work to get dirty. There are jobs they’ll get dirty, yes, but your child is going to work because of their technical experience and knowledge and a lot of it’s computers. The majority of it is sensors, wires and ECMs.’ That has opened a lot of parents’ eyes up. I was surprised that parents didn’t realize how much technicians can make these days. Their jaws dropped.”
Including overtime, a heavy truck technician today can bring in $100,000 a year, De Merchant points out. De Merchant says he’ll hire kids without any experience and help them get the certifications they require if he sees potential in them. Once on-board, he acknowledges young technicians need to be managed differently than the older-generation.
“You have to keep them excited,” he says. “A lot of kids want to understand, am I doing it right? They’re engaged and that’s what brings me the excitement. It’s fun. You just have to keep it on a positive note with these kids. You can’t walk in and be demanding because they shut down. They think they’ve done something wrong and they take things personally. If they put an engine back together and they find a leak, it’s devastating to them. They need to understand it’s okay, we’ll work with you.”
While fleet maintenance professionals have suffered through some rough years, dealing with the reliability issues associated with emissions systems, De Merchant is more excited than ever about the technologies coming down the pike.
“I think we’re going to see over the next couple of years, quality levels coming back,” he says. “Because now the (OEMs) can perfect how they got (to today’s emissions standards). That’s why I’m excited. We now have trucks telling us there’s something wrong with them when they’re running down the road. I can schedule a visit for them. You know what that does for customer satisfaction? Nobody wants to come here and sit. I wouldn’t want to pay a driver to sit here either. Now if our computer has them down for 11, the driver pulls in, perfect, we bring it in the door. It’s the best I’ve ever seen. The worst is behind us and what we have coming forward is completely amazing.”
De Merchant’s shops hold regular floor huddles to discuss emerging technologies and to ensure all the technicians are informed.
Winning the Fleet Maintenance Manager of the Year award was a special honour for De Merchant, because he has personally looked up to many of the past winners whose names grace the same trophy as his now does. He was also touched when his family showed up at the presentation to share the moment with him.
“All the people in the room were people I’ve looked up to over the years, so to actually be on the same trophy a lot of these guys are on is probably the biggest honour ever,” he says.
But just because he has received the award that is seen within his profession as the industry’s top honour doesn’t mean he’ll be slowing down.
“I’m starting to pick up speed now,” he says. “What I’ve done in the past isn’t going to be anything compared to what I’m going do to going forward. Going forward I’m going to be doing a lot more because it’s more exciting. The industry has changed to the point where I wake up every single day more excited. How many people go to work and are challenged every day? I am, and at the same time, I have all these wonderful people that I work with.”
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