A roofer relies on his work truck to be a mobile office, toolbox, taxi, billboard, waste hauler, tow vehicle and lunchroom - sometimes simultaneously. The challenge for contractors is to maximize the functionality and reliability of their company vehicles while minimizing costs. To ascertain ways that contractors meet this challenge, Roofing Contractor examined successful fleet management methods at three different types of roofing operations.
Think Big to Grow BigAs one of the nation’s largest family-owned commercial roofing companies, the A.W. Farrell Group operates a network of private roofing services with more than 40 branch offices coast-to-coast. Founded in Dunkirk, N.Y., by Albert Farrell and his son Bill in the late 1940s, their small roofing business has grown into a 1,200-employee conglomerate of seven large companies, including Progressive Roofing and Roof USA. On a given workday, the group’s branches operate over 600 vehicles in the field. Managing the expense of procuring, maintaining and fueling their armada is the job of Rhett Myers, the group’s Phoenix-based fleet manager since 1999. To track and reduce costs, Myers contracts outside help from automotive management specialist Enterprise Fleet Management, a division of Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “We are in the roofing business, not the vehicle maintenance business,” Myers states.
Enterprise Fleet Management works with business owners to reduce costs for automotive fleets of 15 vehicles or more. The majority of the A.W. Farrell fleet consists of half-, three-quarter- and one-ton Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks. The group utilizes a direct-buy agreement with General Motors Corp. to purchase each truck, but it finances the purchases through a commercial lease program with Enterprise. The company receives a volume incentive discount rate, and Enterprise handles the resale of vehicles as they are cycled out of use. To preserve resale value, Enterprise notifies Myers when a vehicle is approaching 150,000 miles. With 150 vehicles currently under lease, he is gradually converting the entire fleet. All 600 of the company’s vehicles are already serviced exclusively through Enterprise.
“We used to service vehicles in-house, but that meant paying employees for recordkeeping and maintenance rather than roofing,” says Myers. “Enterprise provides one bill for maintenance and one for fuel, rather than 30 or 50 different invoices.”
Every vehicle in the program has an Enterprise credit card and key ring card that allows it to be serviced at any Enterprise-approved vendor (independent vendors can receive same-day approval and payment as the need arises). The card tracks the vehicle’s history, allowing the service record of every truck to be accessed via Internet reporting.
“The big savings come from not over-maintaining, such as buying tires or changing the oil too early,” states Myers. “If a dealership says a truck needs new shocks, Enterprise will know if new shocks were put on a month ago and will call our office for approval.”
The mechanic deals directly with Enterprise’s national service department of trained service advisors to determine the appropriate repairs and price. Any repairs over $500 require company approval. Enterprise’s technicians have received the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) “Blue Seal of Excellence” award for 10 consecutive years, an industry record.
“Experts talking to experts saves vehicle downtime and money,” says Carl Hanson, the vice president of Enterprise Fleet Management, Phoenix. “Our service advisors also know the vehicles’ warranty histories and can determine what parts should be covered.”
In addition to maintenance, the fleet management programs work to reduce the other major cost associated with work trucks - fuel. Enterprise partners with Wright Express to provide each vehicle with a non-name-brand fuel purchase card that works at any gas station. Like the maintenance card, it automatically tracks usage and generates reports accessible through the Internet. Various cost blockers can be implemented, including email alerts if the card is used the wrong day, at the wrong time or for the wrong fuel type - filling up a work truck with super-unleaded, for example. The card can even be programmed (and changed on the fly) to shut off if a fuel purchase surpasses a set limit.
“With the climbing cost of fuel, it is important to know if a vehicle’s fuel efficiency suddenly drops off,” states Myers. “It could be a flag for maintenance problems or inappropriate behavior.”
To help interpret all the data a large fleet generates, Enterprise meets customers like A.W. Farrell a minimum of once a quarter. An account manager reviews the company’s replacement schedule and analyzes the status of its fleet to determine if any changes need to be made. The goal is to be proactive and reduce downtime. When Myers’ fleet requires the addition or cycling of a truck, Enterprise handles all of the details, including finding a local dealership, setting up the lease and ordering it according to company specifications. All A.W. Farrell company vehicles are ordered white with logo decals shipped from the corporate office to maintain uniformity.
“Contractors trying to grow their business don’t have time to deal with mechanics,” says Taylor Brockbank, the senior account manager for Fleet Management who works with Myers. “Five or 10 vehicles may not seem like a big demand on your time, but for 20 or more, having an expert on your side could make the difference in taking your company to the next level.”
Economy for LongevityFor commercial roofing contractors in the metropolitan Detroit area, the decline of the domestic automotive industry and the outsourcing of manufacturing have created a buyer’s market. Despite the struggling local economy, the Livonia, Mich.-based Valines Co. is still going strong into its third generation of ownership. The company’s recent commercial projects include the Greektown Casino and repairing and reroofing Detroit People Mover stations for Super Bowl XLI. Valines’ president, Kenneth Hand III, credits part of the company’s lasting success to flexibility and fiscal discipline, two policies that feature prominently in the management of his work trucks.
Rather than purchasing trucks solely from a single preferred manufacturer, Hand takes advantage of the competition among the Motor City’s 240 new automobile dealers. His 12-vehicle fleet consists of three Chevrolet 1500’s, two dump trucks (one Chevy, one Ford), a Ford cargo van, an Isuzu flatbed, four Ford F-250s and a new Dodge Ram 1500.
“When it is time to pick out a new truck, we are loyal to the best deal going,” says Hand. “We use the Chevys for towing trailers and kettles, and we use the Ford F-250s for hauling payloads.”
Having pickups with the ability to transport heavy cargo is vital for Valines due to the space constraints often imposed by urban working conditions. “When you have a job downtown, its not always practical to obtain daily parking permits for a flatbed or to maneuver one around busy one-way streets,” notes Hand. “The 250s can fit in a normal parking spot or squeeze down an alley.”
Instead of purchasing his Ford pickups with factory- or dealer-installed payload packages, Hand buys base model 250s and has nine-year employee Rob Kowalski beef up their cargo capacities. Kowalski installs leaf springs custom-built for the trucks’ suspensions by the Northern Spring Co. in Clinton Township, Mich. He also puts in heavy-duty Monroe shocks, replaces aluminum tire rims with steel, and remounts standard 5-ply tires with 12-ply, 1/2-inch sidewall industrial tires from Goodyear or Belle Tire.
“With each upgrade, the truck’s cargo capacity raises by a half ton to one ton,” say Kowalski. “Payload-wise, I can convert an F-250 into a much larger, more expensive vehicle for a whole lot less.”
Concerns about such modifications voiding the warranty of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) are moderated by the trucks’ relatively short life span. Valines serves an area roughly 250 miles in diameter, regularly taking jobs as far away as Flint and Jackson. The result is the company’s trucks travel an average of 100,000 miles a year. At that rate, they would outrun a typical warranty within their second year.
“The enhancements are worth it. The Fords can carry a full lift of insulation padding, a roof’s worth of TPO rolls or 16 square of shingles, which would kill a normal truck,” says Hand. “My mechanic is my warranty.”
To compensate for its grueling road wear, Hand’s fleet undergoes thorough preventative maintenance a minimum of twice yearly - or more frequently - as mileage dictates. A typical maintenance session involves Kowalski replacing the truck’s thermostat, servicing the brakes and performing a tune-up with new rotors, caps and plug wires. Hand credits the program with extending the vehicle life of two of the Chevy 1500s to over 450,000 miles; both of these vehicles have their original automatic transmissions.
Another factor Hand considers when working in an urban environment is security. Valines roofing maintenance and repair vehicles are equipped with Weather Guard steel Lo-side truck bed toolboxes. “We like Weather Guard because they are made of durable reinforced steel and they have the best locks I’ve used,” explains Hand. “When you are 12 stories up, you need to be sure your property in your vehicle is safe.”
He goes on to explain that even though Valines outfits its vehicles with premium equipment, there are still ways to reduce costs. Hand orders his truck bed toolboxes from a local dealer, but installs them himself to save on labor charges. Rather than buying ladder racks retail, he has them fabricated by ACHS Metal Products Inc. of Warren, Mich. On the topic of rising fuel costs, he advises contractors to consider alternatives to the traditional V-8 gasoline engine.
“Torque is what really matters, and some of today’s V-6 engines are throwing just as much torque as a V-8,” says Hand. “Also, diesel engines can use up to 30 percent less fuel. Dodge’s in-line six cylinder is the best of both worlds because it’s a diesel and it has more torque than most V-8s.”
Buy New and SaveIf successfully transporting crews, equipment and materials to a work site is the lion’s share of the job for a work vehicle, then nowhere are work trucks depended on more than in Big Sky country. As owner of Summit Roofing in Missoula, Mont., William “Bill” Johns has little cause to utter the words “walking distance.” Having established the residential roofing company in 1986, Johns has over 20 years of experience, and he relies on his trucks to travel up to 500 miles one way, over less than optimal roads and in all types of weather. His advice for contractors looking to build a fleet is to buy new.
“Used or older vehicles will nickel and dime you to death,” says Johns. “On top of the cost of fixing them, if you are broken down, you aren’t making any money.”
For contractors who argue that purchasing vehicles new is not economically practical or even feasible, Johns recommends buying trucks directly from the manufacturer to avoid the dealer markup. On its own, Summit’s 14-vehicle operation does not qualify for direct-buy status, which is typically reserved for big corporations that buy in large quantities. Instead, Johns utilizes his certification as a GAF Master Select contractor to participate in the GAF Ford Fleet purchase program.
GAF provides its Master contractors with direct-buy level discounts from a variety of vendors, including Ford, Nextel and OfficeMax. It also supplies them with marketing training and materials, customer financing programs and job warranties. To qualify for Master Select certification, contractors must be committed to ongoing professional training, be fully licensed and insured, and they must have a proven reputation for quality in their community. The company’s Ford Fleet purchase program affords them substantial price reductions on the purchase of Ford vehicles for their business, personal use and even for their employees.
“We work with local dealers and help employees of qualifying contractors buy or lease Ford products for their families,” explains Mike DiStefano, the company’s director of marketing for certified programs.
Summit’s fleet includes two Ford F-550s, one Ford F-450 and two Ford F-350s. All are equipped with extended crew cabs so Johns can move workers to and from the jobsite. The company manufactures the trucks’ ladder racks and bedposts to hold wooden sideboards. “Wood sideboards increase the depth of the loads we can carry safely,” says Johns. “They also won’t scratch metal materials or equipment and are easy to replace.”
Each of the pickups has two job boxes installed, and both F-550s carry a Yamaha 550 generator. Summit purchases generic toolboxes retail from Home Depot, then removes the locking mechanisms designed to secure them to the truck bed. The company’s metal shop builds brackets that bolt on to the truck bed to hold the boxes in place during transport. “At the jobsite we save time by using a crane to drop the job boxes right on the roof,” says Johns.
Summit often has all of its vehicles on the road on a daily basis. To negate the loss of any one vehicle, Johns equips trucks with tow packages to pull one of the company’s seven trailers. His Ford F-350s have both a standard hitch to tow a bumper-pull trailer, as well as a hidden hitch for fifth-wheel trailers. Summit’s trailer fleet includes a 24-foot enclosed “job shack” containing miscellaneous roofing materials, drills and sheet metal fabrication equipment; a smaller 10-foot version; two 20-foot flat beds to haul materials, each with a GVW rating of 14,000 pounds; a 24-foot fifth-wheel version with a GVW rating of 24,000 pounds for moving forklifts; and two 12-foot flatbeds for transporting metal fabricated during a job.
Rather than employ a mechanic, Johns prefers to outsource vehicle maintenance according to the mileage on each truck. Summit tracks the maintenance history of each vehicle separately. While too many problems can trigger a trade-in, he tries to avoid costly repairs altogether by trading in trucks when they reach 175,0000 to 200,000 miles.
“The newer the vehicle, the less maintenance it requires,” states Johns. “When you do need service or a trade-in, it’s important to build a relationship with the right dealer. You want them to work with you to get you in and back on the road as soon as possible.”