The current coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has touched just about every aspect of truck fleet management, from purchase to maintenance to disposal, and everything else in between.
Work truck fleet managers are specifically concerned about the impact now (and in the future) on their vehicle upfits.
We spoke with Fontaine Modification to find out more about what they see happening now and in the future.
COVID-19 Impact Over Time
Right now, every day is both the same and different. We have the “Groundhog Day” movie syndrome (where every day feels just like the day before), yet each day features changes and issues we have never dealt with before.
“A tremendous amount of effort goes into making sure we have a safe workplace for our employees,” noted Paul Kokalis, president of Fontaine Modification. “This has led to a daily video conference call with the senior staff of the company to assure that we are taking the latest information into account.”
Fontaine is fortunate that none of its 10 locations have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak within its workforce. Some locations are experiencing closures; however, as the OEM the company serves at those sites has closed operations.
“Making sure we have the necessary components to complete the modifications has become more of a challenge as our suppliers are running into their own parts shortages and capacity restraints,” noted Brian Gagnon, Director of Process Improvement, Materials, and IT for Fontaine Modification.
There are also challenges beyond the traditional supply chain related to employee safety.
“A new factor, during this time, is the ordering and scheduling Personal Protective Equipment and the material needed to keep our employees protected,” Kokalis added.
Looking forward, Fontaine is aware of potential demand vs. capacity issues that could impact operations over the next few months.
“Assuming that the worst of this crisis is behind us at that time, many of the issues will be associated with matching our capacity to modify trucks to the OEMs’ build schedule,” said Jamil Young, President of Medium and Heavy Truck Operations for Fontaine Modification.
Honestly, only time will tell the potential impact on upfitting operations.
“Over the next six months to a year, the economic outlook will be a large influence in truck production. That will determine how we schedule and staff going forward,” Young added.
Fontaine Modification's President, Light Duty Truck & EV Solutions, Pat Griffin, added that “While demand for trucks of all types will be driven by the economy, those vocations supporting the changing consumer environment stand to gain the most.”
Factors Playing a Role
Overall, Kokalis noted there is still much uncertainty about truck build schedules, the cycle of the virus, and the economy post-pandemic.
“There is a continuing need to support essential truck customers and the truck fleets that support essential operations. Keeping the economy moving as well as getting goods and services to our doors helps us all,” Young noted. “In our facilities, we have implemented four-day workweeks, staggered shift starts and break times to facilitate social distancing, and we have changed production line processes to keep people apart.”
“As supplies of PPE are now becoming more readily available, we have provided those to our technicians,” Gagnon said.
One new challenge is how Fontaine is handling pilot reviews: via video.
“Many of our customers meet to review the first truck in an order. Often the OEM, dealer, and customer will meet at our facility and go over the truck. These are typically very interactive sessions with a lot of discussions around current and future truck specifications. You need to touch and feel trucks. It’s harder to do that in a video conference,” Young explained.
Traditionally, companies such as Fontaine Modification spend a lot of money on travel expenses.
“When discussing complicated modifications or schedules, it’s hard to beat a face to face meeting,” Kokalis noted.
But, with the current situation, everyone is getting more comfortable with those video calls
“Video calls are not as good as a face-to-face meeting, but video calls are more personal than a phone call. You can see and read people’s faces during the meeting. They are better than a phone call or conference call, quicker and a lot less expensive than a visit, and are going to have an increased impact on businesses in the future,” Kokalis said.
Advice for Fleet Managers Managing Upfit Needs
Looking forward, fleet managers need to stay vigilant and do whatever they can to be ready.
“Understand the condition and age of your fleet and be ready to react when the economy bounces back as we move through this pandemic,” Kokalis recommended.
Griffin wished for something I think many fleet managers have over their careers: “I wish we had a crystal ball to foresee the future. But, a good place to start is to assess the changing landscape and understand how you can position your business to take advantage,” he recommended.
The Bottom Line
Many aspects of the world may have come to a grinding halt, but technology continues to advance.
“Electrification projects and development of new technology goes on, and we continue to work toward the future. The need for these new products did not go away. As a result of the ‘stay at home’ mandates, people within the most densely populated corners of the earth have had a chance to experience a low carbon footprint, in which electric vehicles stand to play a significant role,” Griffin said.
While the current pandemic is new, putting out fires, dealing with changes, and being on the front line is not new for truck fleet managers.
“We would say the same to them what we say to our employees, partners, and customers: Stay calm and steadfast. When you act, be sure it is based on accurate data and information and not ‘reacting’ to one article or piece of information. We are in the middle of a significant health crisis that will have a significant short-term impact on our lives and our economy. We owe it to ourselves, our friends, and families to navigate these obstacles in a way that we can be proud of,” Kokalis added.
Fontaine is here to support the OEMs, dealers, fleets, and body builders in this time of challenges.
“At Fontaine, our goal is to continue to be as flexible as possible to handle the needs of truck buyers and users,” Kokalis concluded.