West Bend Mutual Insurance Company’s Heather Dunn, assistant vice president, corporate accounting, and Tom Krause, purchasing/fleet manager, work closely on fleet issues and concerns.
First established in 1894 in West Bend, Wis., West Bend Mutual Insurance Company (WBMI) provides property and casualty insurance to residents in 11 Midwest states. Along with the company’s mission statement of “providing peace of mind to its customers through sound insurance and exceptional service,” it also strives to be the company of choice for associates, agents, and policyholders.
With more than 1,000 employees and close to $800 million in revenues for 2012, the company operates 135 licensed vehicles, including GMC Terrain, Dodge Grand Caravan, Buick LaCrosse, and Ford Taurus models, plus six off-road units. All of the fleet vehicles are E-85 capable, and a number of the off-road vehicles are powered by electric or diesel.
Regional sales managers, claims damage appraisers, loss prevention specialists, and special investigators utilize these vehicles in the course of their work. Off-road vehicles are used to maintain the company’s 160-acre HQ campus, eight acres of which include lawns, sidewalks, and parking structures. The balance of the acreage was turned back into a natural prairie, very similar to what it would have looked like 150 years ago. In addition to prairie grasses and plants, the site features more than 10,000 trees, a planting process that started more than 25 years ago.
Internal Partnerships Ensure Fleet Financial Compliance
For more than 20 years, Tom Krause has led the WBMI fleet. As purchasing/fleet manager, Krause purchases goods and services for the company’s home office, two subsidiaries, and associates working remotely in 11 states. He also handles the non-executive portion of corporate travel requirements, maintains fixed asset information, and manages the entire fleet operation.
“The fleet operation is located in the financial division on paper, but, in reality, it is a part of virtually every department of the company,” Krause said. “Like all organizations, I need to be mindful of expenses. But, at the same time, I need to constantly recognize I am providing an asset that has to allow my associates to both safely and efficiently perform their duties, while projecting a proper image to the public.”
Krause partners closely with Heather Dunn, assistant vice president – corporate accounting, who reports directly to WBMI’s CFO.
Dunn leads the accounting department, which includes producing all financial reports (internal and external), managing accounts payable functions, and overseeing investment and tax accounting.
She also oversees the purchasing and fleet management side of the business and participates in ongoing strategic initiatives, including a recent data warehousing effort and a major compliance aspect, called the Model Audit Rule.
“Heather and I sit down regularly and go over any fleet issues or concerns,” Krause said. “Each year, I present my suggestions for the model-year, and we discuss how these may affect the budget. There have been no major changes in the past few years with the vehicles, but, after some research, we found there may be a comfort feature that we can add to enhance residual. The added benefit is it will not only look good when we dispose of the vehicle, but our drivers will benefit from it as well.”
Krause also partners with middle management, which has close involvement with company drivers, so their budgets reflect specific fleet expenses. They are also more likely to know about specific individual needs or concerns.
“I have been very fortunate over the years that most managers have supported my decisions and have been in my corner with dealing with any problems,” Krause stated.
He also explained that being part of the “financial family” helps him ensure that fleet financials stay in line with company goals.
“I rub elbows with the people in charge of the budgets daily,” Krause explained.
Fleet Management Keeps the Numbers in Mind
As a part of his annual year-end accounting, Krause compiles a list of incoming and outgoing assets, including vehicles. And, while he can predict some costs with a fair amount of accuracy, such as purchasing and insurance costs, other areas are more fluid, including anticipated service, residuals, and lube oil filter (LOF)/oil change.
“Then there are some cost predictions that require a little faith — fuel costs, out of pocket (OOP), accident costs,” Krause explained. “These are all items I place in the forecast numbers and track to see how lucky/insightful I was.”
He added that one variable remains hard to pin down: the number of drivers. As the company experiences growth and expansion into new territories, Krause must keep vehicles at the ready for new drivers. Unfortunately, he may not always be the first one to find out about the plans. But, using some of his deductive skills, Krause is able to plan his budget effectively.
“By nature I am a numbers guy, and by heredity I am a car guy — my father was a car dealer,” he explained. “Combine these two attributes and the result is that I take a very personal interest in the fleet. This interest typically doesn’t allow much room for surprises.”
Krause added that he is extremely fortunate that his management team objectively views his carefully researched recommendations.
The WBMI Fleet Aims to Keep Drivers Happy
Operating a relatively small fleet, Krause personally meets most of West Bend’s drivers and develops a rapport with them. Even those located farther away regularly communicate with him or exchange e-mails. This direct connection helps build a trust and support that may be lacking in larger fleets.
“We put significant thought and energy in selecting a vehicle for our associates,” Krause said. “Their office is a 2-ton vehicle. Just as not every work station or office is ‘one size fits all,’ we need to accommodate various needs of the drivers.”
For instance, Krause has one driver, in particular, who is very tall. And, he knows each time this driver gets a new vehicle, a shop must add a special track to the seating that enables the driver to sit comfortably while driving.
“It is unlikely I will get any additional money for this unit when it comes time for disposal, but having the driver be comfortable is priceless,” Krause stated.
Today, most WBMI vehicles come equipped with many safety features that were added options years ago. But, early on, the company recognized the benefit of these features and elected to pay the extra cost for the security and safety these features offered.
While Krause pointed out that the fleet department may have recouped some of the expense at the time of resale, he also explained that there are some things you can’t put a price on.
“When I get one of those dreaded messages that one of the drivers was involved in an accident, the first question is if everyone is okay,” he stated. “When I am told the vehicle looks pretty ugly, but everyone in our vehicle is fine because of the safety features — that is a complete return on the investment. Or, when I am contacted about the heavy rain or snow that a driver experienced, and how he or she made it safely due to AWD, ABS, traction control, etc., that makes it worth it.”