DISH Network's Fleet Keeps Its Customers Connected
A combination of standardization, flexibility, partnerships, and collaboration have been the recipe for the DISH fleet’s success.
Brian Nickelson, director of operations – finance (left), and Abe Stephenson, fleet and administration manager, lead the DISH Network fleet from corporate headquarters in Meridian, Colo.
The DISH service fleet is a ubiquitous part of the telecommunication company’s brand. It is also a key component in the company’s corporate goals.
“We have the ability to be in any customer’s driveway today across the nation. In order to do that, we have to have a reliable fleet that is the right size and has the right resources,” said Brian Nickelson, director of operations, finance for DISH. “In a lot of ways, we look at what is the higher cost resource, and that’s labor. So, with labor as the higher cost resource, we put a little bit more flexibility in our fleet, so we can get our more expensive resource to the customer’s home at the right time and the right place.”
Standardizing the Fleet
To effectively manage the nationally dispersed fleet of 4,700 vehicles — from DISH headquarters in Englewood, Colo. — Nickelson said that every aspect of the fleet is standardized from the way vehicles are upfit to the uniforms the drivers wear.
DISH has worked closely with upfitter Leggett & Platt to create a standardized, highly functional DISH-branded cargo van. The upfitter is currently developing DISH-specific packages for the new Euro-style vans rolling out on the U.S. market.
“If I go to an office in New York, I can look in the back of the van and know where everything is supposed to be, and if it isn’t, what’s wrong. It comes down to the efficiency that comes from standardization,” he said.
Standardization is important in effectively running the nationally dispersed fleet. This is particularly true when dealing with unexpected variables, according to Fleet and Administration Manager Abe Stephenson, who pointed to the recent spate of bad weather on the East Coast as an example of the ease with which local managers benefited from standardized practices while also improvising when needed.
“If there’s bad weather or somebody can’t get into the office or somebody has to use a different vehicle, you’re not going to have to spend any additional time figuring out where something is in the vehicle. We give a lot of credit to our general managers out in the field and how they respond and react and manage their local processes accompanied by the input they receive from the corporate office, and we absolutely rely on our operations folks to be experts on the variables in their area” he said.
The fleet culture, particularly the focus on standardization, is driven from the top down, according to Stephenson. “Our focus on standardizing the DISH fleet, as with all the components of our business, is consistent with the vision of our executive vice president, Erik Carlson, for creating a common experience for both our customers and our employees,” he said.
DISH’s fleet is relatively standardized itself, made up primarily of GM cargo vans (85 percent) and pickups (15 percent). The latter are mainly 4x4 heavy-duty pickups used in off-road or heavy snow conditions.
The reason for GM fleet makeup is simple, according to Stephenson. “Typically, we look at fuel economy as the primary purchase reason. The primary budget line for us is fuel, so we’ll make decisions about vehicles based on small differences in fuel economy, which is usually the decision point,” he said. “Quite frankly, the OEMs historically have given us very similar choices. It is economics; we do look at maintenance and lifecycle cost, but it really has been fuel that has flipped the decision either way.”
However, this may change in the future due to improvements in fuel economy by other OEMs, particularly with the introduction of the new Euro-style vans.
DISH leases its vehicles through GE Capital Fleet Services. The FMC provides the fleet with a number of services, including fuel and maintenance management, and registration services.
In addition, Stephenson and Nickelson oversee a staff of six in-office fleet employees.
Preparing for Peak Efficiency
To be better prepared for peak demand, DISH strategically “overfleets.”
“The strategy behind that is customer focused. We know that there are certain times of the year or month, even days of the week that we’re going to have more demand from customers, so we’ve built our technician force to have some flexibility — to flex up in some of those times and flex down in others, and we work in partnership with our employees to get out during those times. When we ran tighter on our fleet , we looked at the cost-benefit of what should we have in our fleet in those times and how many extra vans we should have sitting around, so in those busy times we have enough vehicles to meet those demands,” Nickelson said.
Brian Pheney and Monica Alvidrez discuss a fleet-related issue. Teamwork and communication are a big part of what keeps the DISH Network fleet moving. In the foreground are Tim Perkins (left) and Abe Stephenson.
The company averages about 30 vehicles per office, according to Stephenson. “It’s not a one-to-one match with drivers and vehicles. We have a small percentage of drivers who take their vehicles home at night. We’re very much a pooled fleet,” he explained. “That helps us keep our total fleet numbers lower, but you have to be careful about the calculations. We will staff vehicles to peak days of the week, but on Sunday, for instance, you’re not going to need all of your vehicles.”
Through its upfitter, Leggett & Platt, DISH maintains a bailment vehicle pool, which, Stephenson said, is a key part of the company’s day-to-day operations, and is currently the only way it onroad’s vehicles.
“We have the benefit that we only use a few vehicle types, so they all look the same, and have similar upfits. We’ll order them ahead of time, wrap them, upfit them, and stage them for when we need them. On a weekly basis, we’ll have offices that we need to push out one or two vehicles at a time,” said Stephenson. “Instead of having a four- to six-month vehicle ordering process, we’ll be getting vehicles out anywhere from two to six weeks, and that matches up very well when an office hires somebody and needs to train them; they’re ready when the technician is ready to go into the field. We order fluidly throughout the year. We don’t do batch ordering. We have a large enough fleet and a reasonable amount of vehicle turnover, so we can stock vans mid-stream.”
The bailment pool has also allowed DISH to respond to spikes in business in different regions, moving those vehicles to help cover the spike and then getting reabsorbed once it’s over.