Cover Story: How to Pack the House

A long time ago in Indiana, there was a State Maintenance Council. It was a popular offering of the Indiana Motor Truck Association (IMTA), and fleet maintenance managers flocked to the meetings to learn new maintenance tips from vendors and to swap stories and advice with their “competitors.”

But something happened. The Indiana State Maintenance Council that was thriving in the early 1990s began to lose membership, and today it no longer exists.

“Back during deregulation time, the Maintenance Council was huge,” says Tisha Eder, IMTA executive vice president. “But then when deregulation took effect, it started dwindling. And it pretty much got down to nothing, there was no one attending and it fizzled out.”

And it remained fizzled for many years, until a new IMTA officer with a progressive view looked around and decided that maybe, just maybe, the time was right to bring back the Indiana Motor Truck Association Maintenance Council.

CHAPTER 1

Last year, Fleet Maintenance Magazine was approached by Ke’Vin Roberts, then the director of safety & membership for IMTA, for some help in starting a new State Maintenance Council in Indiana. Our discussions led to Roberts penning a guest editorial for this magazine last February, entitled “Answering the Call: How to make a State Maintenance Council Happen.”

In that column, Roberts wrote: “One thing that we don’t have is an active Maintenance Council. At one time there was a Maintenance Council here at the IMTA, and our members love to tell me about the good ole’ days, but they always say, ‘As jobs changed and companies restructured the maintenance council got smaller and smaller until there was no maintenance council at all.’ That’s a shame, especially since the interest in having a maintenance council has never gone away.”

Well, Roberts took those stories about the “good ole’ days” to heart and he started thinking about whether a maintenance council would fly today.

Although he now works as assistant director of transportation and security for the Washington Township, Indiana, School District, Roberts’ vision and influence are still felt within the IMTA Safety Management Council, under whose auspices the new Maintenance Council may be reborn.

Roberts credits his interest in creating a Maintenance Council to his days working on the fleet operations side of retail giant Wal-Mart, which has two distribution centers in Indiana.

“I’ve always had an appreciation for maintenance, and how important the maintenance side of the business is,” he says. When I got to Wal-Mart, it was as much about safety and maintenance as anything. Wal-Mart is on the forefront of safety and maintenance.”
When he came on board at IMTA, Roberts became responsible for the Safety Management Council, and that Wal-Mart background started to influence his thinking. “I brought to the IMTA a kind of a progressive mindset, and a willingness to reach out, to think outside the box,” he recalls. “With IMTA’s Safety Management Council, a lot of things had been done the same for years, but when I asked around, I heard that, yea, we had had a Maintenance Council, and a lot of people had been involved with it.
“So,” he says, “it wasn’t that I was trying to reinvent the wheel; but just to look at the wheel again, and get it rolling again.”

CHAPTER 2

Roberts found a brother-in-arms in Lance Riegle, a sales agent for Columbus, IN-based insurance company Marvin Johnson & Associates, Inc., and Chairman of the IMTA Safety Management Council. Riegle’s customer-focused approach to running the Safety Management Council meshed nicely with Roberts’ goals of providing more value to IMTA’s members.

“I started working with Ke’Vin a year and half ago, and we just tried to do everything we could to think of (in terms of) new ideas to ramp up the Safety Management Council,” Riegle says. “We tried to promote it more, get more attendance, and grow that part of the organization.

“One of the ideas that Ke’Vin had brought to the table was looking at maintenance more than we were,” Riegle continues. “One thing that the Safety Management Council had been focused on was dealing with the safety directors of these companies, when we were missing out on other people who might have gotten involved because we weren’t addressing the maintenance element of safety. It’s a big part of the safety of our vehicles out on the road, and Ke’Vin thought it would be a great idea to make that a part of the Safety Management Council, or to perhaps form a new separate Maintenance Council, which is where Fleet Maintenance Magazine came in.”

Roberts’ guest editorial in the February issue of Fleet Maintenance seems to have generated a bit of a stir in Indiana, something that the IMTA wasn’t expecting.

“When we ran that article, it was surprising,” Roberts says. “We started to hear from members of our Association that had not been to our Safety Management Council meetings, that did not participate. But when that article came out, lo and behold, people called in who we had never heard from at all!”

CHAPTER 3

Fast forward to the April 8th meeting of the IMTA Safety Management Council, held at the Marriott Hotel North, in Indianapolis. That night, attendees experienced a new type of meeting, featuring new ideas that Riegle and Roberts had been talking about for months.

“In January, Ke’Vin and I had looked at the April meeting, and we looked at maintenance, which we had never really touched on; just getting back to the nuts and bolts of what safety really is,” Riegle recalls. “We’re here to benefit our members, so we tried to look at safety from the point of view of the company, not just the safety director. There’s a lot more involved in safety than just what the safety manager does; it has run all the way from top to bottom.

“So, we thought it would be a great opportunity to have a meeting based on maintenance, that could open the door to bring in some new blood, some people new to the group, who maybe had never attended a meeting, to open their eyes to what we do at the safety council,” he says.

CHAPTER 4

With Riegle hosting, the evening’s events started out with a dinner and social hour, followed by the Safety Management Council’s regular business meeting, then a maintenance presentation.

The guest speakers represented Caterpillar and Wal-Mart, and their topic, not surprisingly, was spec’ing and maintaining for fuel economy. The presentation led to a very engaging conversation among the attendees, something that Riegle credits to a new meeting format that he and Roberts also pioneered.

“When Ke’Vin and I started working together on this, the previous format we had was: we do the business portion of the meeting, we have a presenter who gives a 30-minute presentation, then we have a ‘Q & A’ afterwards,” he explains. “What we tried was to have a round table, where you’re bouncing ideas and questions back and forth, openly, throughout the whole 30- to 45-minute presentation. You get more people involved, where they don’t feel like, ‘Oh, I had a question at the five minute mark and now it’s 25 minutes and I forgot what it was, or it’s not relevant now.’

“We tried to open it up to where people could ask questions anytime and not feel like they’re interrupting a presentation,” he says. “With the round table discussions you get more people involved, and as soon as people start feeling comfortable with the topic, they start forming those ideas, and, yea, we see that kind of response, which is really good. That means they’re getting something out of it.”

“I’ve never seen so much interaction and that much conversation, honestly,” says Eder. “I thought that was very exciting. It’s always good when you can get people talking and sharing information. That’s one of the things I’m proudest of in this industry: you get a group of competitors together, and they’re not afraid to share information to help one another out.”

CHAPTER 5

Eder’s good impressions are important, because she’s the one who goes back to the IMTA board to report on the meeting. From all accounts, her report is expected to be very positive.

“We’re very excited about that meeting, and how many people attended,” she says.

“The direct result of that was it gave me and the board an opportunity to see the kind of attendance and feedback we would get, and this was definitely a topic that was very well-received,” says Riegle. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who were at the meeting, about how much they enjoyed it, and how much they definitely would like to see more topics revolving around maintenance, so it’s definitely been put on the radar. Which is great, because at the end of the day we’re in this to help our members, and to give them as much bang for their buck as paying members of the IMTA as we can. This gives us new material to use to help out our members.”

“If a maintenance guy can talk to another maintenance guy and say, ‘We’re doing this, and we gained two or three extra miles per gallon,’ that helps everybody,” says Roberts. “So, this just seemed like a great opportunity to reach out and talk to our maintenance guys from IMTA; because we want them to know that we remember them too, and we know how important they are, because they don’t always get the recognition that they should.”

Eder’s plans are to build on the excitement of the April meeting by forming a committee to review the meeting results, and conduct a survey of IMTA members to gauge the potential support for ongoing maintenance meetings.

Sadly, Eder does not expect the IMTA board to approve a stand-alone Maintenance Council, no matter what the survey tells them. It’s not because the board doesn’t value maintenance, however, it’s simply a matter of available manpower and resources.

“It’s just because we are a small association,” she says. “There are only four of us. So that makes it hard for us to start new councils and run those councils, free-standing on their own.”

What Eder does see is IMTA launching a Maintenance Council as a part of the existing Safety Management Council. After all, she says, “Safety and maintenance go hand-in-hand.”

CHAPTER 6

Of course, Eder’s report back to the IMTA board is only half the story. What about those new attendees at the April meeting? What they reported back to their boards is every bit as important.

If what Riegle has been hearing since April is any indication, there is definitely a positive buzz in the boardrooms of the Indiana trucking community.

“What I saw with this meeting was probably five to ten people who had never been involved,” says Riegle. “And not only five or ten people, but a lot of different carriers that we had not ever touched that showed a lot of interest in this meeting.

“What we got out of it as a council is the feedback from the carriers: this is the kind of meeting they’ve been looking for, something where we can come and not only receive information, but also have the ability to bounce ideas off other carriers and see what they’re doing,” he says. “Kind of a collective; we’re competitors, but at the end of the day we’re all in this together, and we’re trying to figure out what can help our company from a safety and operation outlook, and what can we do to make the industry better?”
In other words, the only way a Maintenance Council can be successful is if it delivers tangible benefits to its members.
“When you get a good, core group of people together, and that’s their main objective, you can generate some really good ideas that people can take back to their companies,” says Riegle. “Then, when the president or CEO asks why we should be a part of this council, why should we be spending money sending someone to Indianapolis, they can stand up and say, ‘Listen, these three ideas came from that meeting, and it directly affected our bottom line by x.’ They have something to show the people they report to, to show that they really are getting something out of this.”

CHAPTER 7

By the time you read this, the IMTA will have held its season-ending Spring Meeting in early May. Members will have had a chance to discuss the April meeting, Association staff will have had a chance to sound out members on their willingness to support a Maintenance Council, and the wheels will, in all likelihood, be in motion.

At that point, Riegle, Eder and the IMTA board have the rest of the summer to make plans.

“When we get together this summer, I’ll get more info from Tisha on what the IMTA’s thoughts are on the Maintenance Council, and involving more maintenance issues,” Riegle explains. “Tisha would be the liaison between the IMTA and the Council, and I know she says that the Maintenance Council is definitely something the IMTA is considering.”

If the IMTA’s plans for a Maintenance Council have sounded modest so far, don’t be fooled. At the urging of several Safety Management Council members, Eder is already looking into the possibility of holding a state technician skills competition in 2009. That’s not modest thinking, folks!

“At the April meeting, the Wal-Mart guys said, ‘Hey, we do this at Wal-Mart, and there are some states that get involved,’ then sure enough, I got a call from a guy at Batesville Casket Company who sent me information on a professional technician skills competition, and they’re interested in getting one started,” Eder reports.

“I can see doing this in conjunction with our truck driver championships, because we have the facilities,” she says. “Maybe in 2009; we’ll have to investigate and see if people are interested. And of course, we’ll need volunteers! But it sounds like there’s getting to be enough interest, so that’s encouraging.”

That news makes Roberts, the Godfather of the IMTA’s Maintenance Council, a happy man.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea (for IMTA), because they’re going to get a whole new segment of people involved who have never been involved before,” he says. “It recognizes that the guy who works on the truck is just as important as the guy who drives the truck. You increase your participation, you get more help from the companies, you’re going to have more people at your competition, you’re going to have more people at your banquet, so it’s just a great idea.”

CHAPTER 8

After all the planning and surveys are through, it’s the fleets of Indiana that will determine the success of a State Maintenance Council.
We spoke with two IMTA members to ask what they thought of plans to bring more maintenance information to Safety Management Council meetings—or to re-launch the Maintenance Council—and found them to be singing from the same choir book as Riegle and Roberts.

“Wal-Mart has been involved with the IMTA since 1990,” says Bob Barger, Wal-Mart service manager, based in Seymour, IN. “We feel a Maintenance Council would be a benefit to network best practices with other companies, and provide a format for our technicians to compete with other technicians statewide to show their skills.

“There is a wealth of new technology that is being introduced in new equipment,” Barger continues. “By sharing information with other carriers, this would allow us to stay on top of the new technology, and equip our technicians with up to date information.
“Information sharing, best practices, networking and training all would be a benefit to any company,” he says. “Being committed to what you are doing and how well you do it is a choice. Continuous learning and involvement are a big part of professional development.”

Will McCormick, part-owner of Vincennes, IN-based Bestway Express, Inc. was one of the “newbies” at April’s meeting. He brought along his maintenance director, Phil Conover, another first-timer, and the two plan on becoming regulars.

“My family’s been part of IMTA since the beginning, and I figure I’ve got to keep it up,” McCormick says. “Tisha asked me if I wanted to come, and I figure I’ve got to do everything I can to support IMTA.

“After Tisha talked to me, I got to talking to Lance, and he told me that it was a maintenance meeting and we would talk about ways to save money,” he says. “Any time there’s a way to save money I’m going to listen.

“The meeting was great,” McCormick says. “It’s nice to hear that everybody else is having the same problems you’re having. It helps people learn, it helps put people in contact with other maintenance people. One thing in I see is that maintenance people, other than TMC, don’t really have the connections like the rest of the trucking industry has. What this would do is, if I have a problem and I need help, maybe I can call over to Bob Baylor’s and talk to them, or Smithway Trucking and talk to those guys, just because I know them from this council. Sometimes just venting gets your thoughts out there, and then you get a different answer.”

McCormick is equally enthusiastic about the proposed technician competition.

“I think it would be great,” he says. “This isn’t the greatest paying job, and it’s hard work. But, the guys you get who are very, very good are the ones you give training to, and I have two in mind that, if we have that competition, I would send in a heartbeat, and I know would represent me very well.”

McCormick feels that fleet maintenance professionals are on the quiet side, and don’t always jump into open discussions, but he feels that Riegle’s round table approach is a good way to get more involvement from meeting attendees.

“All those guys have the same thoughts; it’s just getting them to put them out there,” he says. “I think Lance does a great job in leadership, and we need to keep that open forum. In an open forum, you get a lot out of that, because you’ll have one guy say. ‘Hey, does anybody have this problem?’ and someone else will say, ‘Yea, I’ve got that, too.’

“I think it’s definitely great. It’s something that’s important for the whole industry.”

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