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November 2010, Business Fleet - Feature

Maintaining Control

Learn why the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA switched to custom-built vans and open-end leases.

by Tariq Kamal - Also by this author

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“Specialized” barely begins to describe the needs of the PHS/SPCA fleet, which facilitates the nonprofit’s animal rescue and control efforts and mobile clinics.

As captain of animal rescue and control for the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA of San Mateo County, Calif., Jeff Christner has collected a few war stories. There's the one about the 11-hour, multi-agency rescue of a horse that slipped down an embankment, or "Freeway," the cow that survived a fall from a trailer on U.S. 101. Then there's the pair of ostriches Christner was tasked with delivering to a wildlife sanctuary.

"They weren't escapees," he recalls. "I think the owner just couldn't take care of them anymore. We sent one of the old vans, and they pecked out one of the windows."

The county, which includes the lower half of the San Francisco Peninsula and the northern end of Silicon Valley, has entrusted PHS/SPCA with the task of managing the welfare of the county's millions of four-legged residents. As such, the organization's fleet needs are numerous and diverse. Christner has enough experience to know what he and his officers need to get the job done, but, like many small-fleet operators, has never claimed to be a "car guy."

Nor has Debbie Fischer, PHS/SPCA's vice president of finance and administration, who joined the staff in 2009 after several years as a volunteer. Her duties include the administration of the organization's fleet of eight custom-built vans, four Ford F-250 and two GMC Sierra pickups, as well as a mobile adoption center and a mobile spay/neuter clinic. In addition to rescue and transport, PHS/SPCA handles lost and found, cruelty investigations, wildlife rehabilitation, education and more.

New vehicles and procurement Strategies

Fischer soon realized that the stack of closed-end leases PHS/SPCA had written with their former fleet management company was a bad fit, as was the organization's procurement process, which delivered vehicles that were not ready for service.

"The chassis cabs would show up, and then we were responsible for doing all the running around and getting things switched over, like mounting the box and getting the light bars on," she says. "We don't pay our folks to do that kind of thing."

Fischer's first task was to clear out several of the old trucks. "There's not a whole lot of value in those vehicles at auction or anywhere else, so we held our own little auction right here, for our employees," she says. "We did much better than we would have if we tried to sell them through an auction or through a broker."

"We left the bodies on all but one," Christner adds. "One employee had plumbers in the family, so they're now using it as a work truck."

In her search for a long-term solution, Fischer found a car guy: Jeff Barron, a veteran lessor and president of San Francisco-based Ellis Brooks Leasing Inc. Barron took on the challenge of remobilizing his first humane society.

"I looked at it as an opportunity to learn about a niche market," he says. "I've never dragged a dead deer off the highway or pulled a kitten out of a tree; but, as an interested third party, I can ask a lot of questions."

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