Every year, the fleet manager has the same concerns when it comes to ordering vehicles for the next model year. Whether it's replacement units or additional fleet equipment, the worries are the same: "What do I order to meet my company's requirements, keep the drivers interested enough to take care of their assigned vehicles, and recover the most from our investment at the time of sale or trade?" Whether it's cars, wagons, SUVs or trucks, there are things you can do to help ensure you're getting the most for your investment. In my experiences, I've always felt a good, but brief analysis of the job at hand for each vehicle was a good place to start. Then you should consider the driver to whom you plan to assign that new unit, and any special considerations he or she may need addressed. Those considerations could be from the type of job to be accomplished daily to any possible physical restrictions. Nothing can make a person's day as miserable as putting a big or tall person in a shoebox to drive. It is always in your best interest to try to keep the number and types or makes of vehicles being considered to a minimum. This gives you a better base to work on with pricing and options across the board. Of course there will be individual considerations where executive or upscale vehicles are concerned, but for the most part, you can work out a set of specifications (selector), offer a few cool options and meet most everyone's needs. Keeping in mind of course, "You can't please everyone." If you purchase vehicles for sales personnel, perhaps a survey of their wants, needs and choices would be a good way to start. In this way each prospective driver feels he or she has had some input into the process. Then you can get together with your supplier, whomever that may be, and work out the vehicle specs that would best suit the majority of the personnel. Ordering trucks for a fleet should entail much the same process, but job requirements and available equipment may cut into your ability to please quite as many people with the choices you have to make. Every year, the manufacturers offer options that make a lot of sense to incorporate into your specs. In addition to that are the early order incentives that are there for the taking. Another thing to consider is the timeliness of your purchase. The time of year you purchase will undoubtedly affect the time of year you dispose of the vehicle, and it's a fact that there are certain times of year when resale values are higher. Also, are you allowing yourself enough time to get the vehicle in question into service when it's required? Again, trucks may pose other problems such as upfitter involvement. What body style of vehicle do you require? How much can you spend? Are you leasing or buying outright? These are questions that need to be addressed, especially the "How much can you spend" part. But the evaluation of free-flow options, package equipment deals, accessories, body style and even color is very important. The Color of Money Although it's not normally a consideration in cost, let's look at color choice. Each year the colors change like the weather, but there are a few colors that are here to stay. I am mainly referring to white. If a company can live with white, it can make its life a lot easier in several ways: - White vehicles are normally a very readily available color and in many cases can be found as stock items on dealers' lots (in case of an emergency). - White can be easily and inexpensively upgraded with pinstriping, decals, company logos, etc. - When it comes time to trade in or sell the vehicle, minor vehicle damage can normally be touched up on white, where special or darker colors are much more costly to match and repair. - White is usually easier to sell in a business environment, as it's more adaptable to other companies' needs. - White normally doesn't show fading and deterioration as bad as darker colors. - Another consideration is that white vehicles are usually cooler inside. Standard and no-cost equipment are big items to consider because the more you can get (can afford) at time of purchase, the better the vehicle will be received and the better the resale will be. A look at the Kelley Blue Book, for example, will show you that upgraded body styles offer more going in and recover more going out. Vehicles pretty much come standard-equipped with auto transmission, power steering, power brakes, air conditioner, AM-FM radio with cassette or CD player, tinted glass, cruise control and pulse wipers with tilt steering wheel. For the most part, anything after this is an upgrade of some type. Drivers will historically request or choose options (if offered that choice), like upgraded audio systems, leather seating, power adjustable seats, lumbar support systems, remote adjust-able mirrors and, of course, the biggest engine with the most gears in the transmission. If any of these are offered as free-flow options, and you choose them, you will be the driver's best friend, and it may help your bottom line immensely at the same time. Think About Options Think out of the box when it comes to options. Some are a real value while others just cost you unnecessary dollars. Check it yourself: go on the Internet to Kelley Blue Book's Web page at www.kbb.com and look up the used-car values with and without options of your choice and compare the two. The numbers don't lie! There are numerous other online sources with this information. There are a few other minor items that can be tweaked to get more for your vehicle-buying dollar and realize better trades, such as, do you need a four-door sedan to accomplish your work? Would a compact auto, coupe or a sport utility vehicle work better for you? If you did the analysis mentioned earlier, you should have a pretty good idea of any special requirements you might need to include in the order or purchase. If you have different levels of personnel to equip, perhaps options are a great way of set-ting the pecking order for vehicle entitlement without varying the make and model drastically. Continuity in purchasing will make tracking all aspects of the vehicle's lifecycle history much easier. With the seemingly limitless increase in fuel prices, perhaps some type of alternative fuel vehicle program may be in order. Many states and municipalities offer great incentives on taxes and registration fees when you avail yourself of alternative fuel offerings. Most manufacturers offer sizeable discounts on alt fuel systems at time of purchase. Do you need a V-8, V-6 or will a four-cylinder engine cut it for you? The choice is yours. The initial cost of the engine and the increased cost of operation on larger engines may be partially offset by the performance you get with a bigger mill. However, at trade-in time, unless power is the buzzword for the day, you may not fare so well. More and more, managers are being pressured to put smaller power plants in their vehicles, to get better fuel mileage and of course, save money. Recent Automotive Fleet magazine surveys have shown that many fleets are equipping their vehicles so they can be used in several applications and will hopefully last without major repairs during their lifecycle. In some cases, vehicles may be reassigned to another corporate division after being turned in for disposal and help out other areas needing temporary help now, but may not have a budget to purchase new units. This interdepartment or intercompany reassignment of assets is a sure way to get the very most out of your original investment. Let's Talk Trucks We've talked in generalities about autos, vans and SUVs; now how about trucks? For discussion purposes, let's look at trucks up to Class 5 (16,001-19,500 lbs. GVW). All truck purchases could be examined in basically the same way. You need to get a little more technical when spec'ing trucks. The manufacturers will give you several compatible options on engine and transmission combinations, weight ratio options, rear axle ratios and so on, but one thing remains the same: Do your initial analysis as with cars, and progress from there. One thing in common between trucks and cars is that white is a great commercial vehicle color. Trucks in white are normally available in bailment pool stock and on dealers' lots. They can be altered in a million ways: re-painting, stripping, decals, signage and whatever it takes to get your message across. You must be much more aware of driver requirements and their individual capabilities or the lack thereof, before you order a new truck for, or assign one to, an employee. Driver's license checks, physical exams, medical reports and personnel records could be a real plus for you in helping avoid unwanted problems and possible litigation. Here are additional points to consider: - Does the truck you're thinking of purchasing have any special licensing requirements? - What are the chances of dual-purpose usage? - Is there a principal area of operation for this projected piece of equipment? Are there environmental, terrain or other weather concerns? - Will the unit ordered require transshipment to an upfitter? If so, have you allowed for adequate order to delivery time? - Have you adequately spec'ed the vehicle in question, to allow a comfort zone of horsepower, gearing and gross vehicle weight capacity? An Ounce of Prevention . . . One universal thing for both cars and trucks that will help ensure a quality vehicle at turn-in time is a good preventive maintenance program. Along with that program should go a driver's guidebook with all the rules, regulations and expectations associated with operating a company-provided vehicle. Even with a good maintenance program, extended warranties can be a good option. With any type of extended warranty program ,you can piggyback a managed fuel program to improve your fleet's operating costs while gathering historical data on your vehicles. Tie them all together, from a purchasing analysis to taking advantage of free-flow options and incentives of all kinds. Add the proper maintenance of the correct vehicle, and you have just about maxed out what you can personally do to ensure you purchased the right vehicle at the right price, and at the right time. All that's left now is to sell the old unit for max dollars and show headquarters that your total package vehicle replacement program is a win-win situation. Editor's note: Gene Allen, executive editor for Bobit Publishing, is a veteran of the fleet and transportation industries, having recently completed almost 20 years as fleet operations manager for Farmer Brothers Coffee Co. in Torrance, Calif. At Farmer Brothers, Allen was responsible for spec'ing and purchasing all fleet vehicles, bodies and trailers and for setting vehicle maintenance policies and procedures.