Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

Meet the 2017 Fleet Executive of the Year

November 2017, by Eric Gandarilla - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of AFLA.
Photo courtesy of AFLA.

When Wayne Smolda, CEO and president of CEI, called Caryn Helmandollar to the stage, she was surprised. As she walked toward the stage while the song “All I Do is Win” blared through the room’s sound system, she couldn’t help but chuckle. But, as she received the 2017 Fleet Executive of the Year award, all she felt was humbled.

The award, which has been sponsored by The CEI Group since its inception, is an annual award that recognizes a fleet executive for his or her exceptional leadership with a title of vice president or higher.

“It was quite a surprise. It was obviously very humbling and I think that it’s a wonderful award and what’s behind it is a lot of people,” said Caryn Helmandollar, group head of risk management for Ferguson plc.

Those people, she noted, are her team at Ferguson. Looking back at winning the Fleet Executive of the Year award at this year’s AFLA Conference, she really feels like she won a team award.

At a Glance

Caryn Helmandollar oversees a fleet of nearly 10,000 vehicles.

  •  She has been in charge of Ferguson’s fleet for roughly eight years.
  •  A current initiative that Helmandollar has undertaken is retrofitting nearly 600 trucks with backup alarms.

“There were a lot of things that built up to that moment and a lot of them were because of this team that we have and the things that they’re doing. And, while I have the pleasure of leading them, it really felt to us like a team award,” said Helmandollar.

The reason she feels like her team was such a big force behind winning the award is because of the quality of employees who work under her. Any opportunity she is given, she hires people that are smarter than her, she noted. When she’s looking for new people to bring on to her team, she looks for people who she would want to work for, know things that she doesn’t.

On repeated occasions, Helmandollar is quick to point in the direction of others when talking about reasons behind her department’s success. Her employees tell a slightly different story, however. They tell a story of a boss who is analytical, frighteningly organized, transparent, respectful, and well-regarded throughout the entire organization.

MJ Weier, director, risk management at Ferguson has worked with Helmandollar for about 10 years. She describes Helmandollar as one of the most strategically sound person she has ever met.

“She’s very effective at seeing a situation from multiple sides, analyze the pros and cons of the decision, and then trouble shoot and anticipate what some of the challenges might be from someone who doesn’t support the decision might bring up in order to reach a more palatable decision for all parties involved,” Weier said.

She further described Helmandollar as someone who is not afraid to shy away from difficult conversations. Helmandollar is far from confrontational, but she’s willing to do what needs to be done to ensure her department’s priorities are met.

The current mantra that Helmandollar works by, and instills in her employees is: Your success in life is directly proportional to the amount of uncomfortable conversations that you’re willing to have.

Weier had a bevy of further accolades for Helmandollar; however, one of the best ways she had to describe this year’s recipient of the Fleet Executive of the Year award was “frighteningly organized.”

“She is frighteningly organized; she can put anybody to shame. Her reputation at the organization is unsurpassed, she is incredibly well thought of for her business acumen, her fairness, and her willingness to not shy away from problems,” said Weier. “This is also in a male-dominated company and industry. There aren’t many women in the plumbing industry at an HQ level.”

Beginning with Ferguson

Helmandollar began her career with what is now known as Ferguson plc in April 1999 as a human resources manager for a company called Stock Building Supply. Stock Building Company was one of two entities that comprised Wolseley North America, which later became Wolseley plc, and earlier this year became Ferguson plc.

Her tenure as Stock Building Supply’s senior human resources manager spanned seven years until 2006 when she was named director, health and safety for Wolseley North America. Three years later she was promoted to director, risk management; which was when she became responsible for the company’s fleet.

“You rarely see fleet in the risk management function, it’s kind of odd,” Helmandollar said.

Fleet fell under her responsibilities as a result of the person who was previously responsible for fleet retiring. He had spent many years managing the company’s fleet department, and upon his retirement, the responsibility was added under Helmandollar’s purview.

She had spent the bulk of her career in human resources, so fleet was a whole new world for her. And while she lacked fleet knowledge, with the help of a fleet management company, she was able to dive head first into the deep end of the fleet pool without drowning.

“The very first friends that I ever had in fleet were the people at Wheels. I knew nothing about fleet and they were extremely supportive as they showed me the ropes and I very much appreciated that,” Helmandollar said.
In 2012, she was named senior director, risk management, and in 2014 she was promoted to the vice president, risk management, the position she held when she received the Fleet Executive of the Year award and until last month. In late October she was officially named group head of risk management for Ferguson plc.
This position would include the same responsibilities that she held as vice president, risk management—which include overseeing the fleet, insurance, claims, security, product integrity, and risk control functions at Ferguson—as well as add on some global responsibilities. On a global scale, Helmandollar will be responsible for Enterprise Risk Management, product integrity, and insurance and property loss control.

Risk Management at Ferguson plc

The fleet function is overseen by Risk Management, which Caryn Helmandollar oversees at Ferguson.

A typical day in the risk management department is hard to describe because the nature of risk management lends itself to unpredictable work days.

For example, disaster preparedness falls under risk management’s purview. So, during the recent string of hurricanes, Helmandollar’s department was responsible for addressing the safety of its people, securing buildings and ensuring that the company is able to get back serving its customers as soon as possible.

“It’s the ABCs: the associates are first, then we tackle the business, then we make sure we’re able to engage the customers,” said Helmandollar.

Helmandollar noted that her company was fortunate to have not had any fatalities during the recent hurricanes given that with 1,400 branches across the U.S., Ferguson was affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

In Texas, no buildings were destroyed but some did experience water damage. Employee homes were also damaged or destroyed, but the company supported them through the Ferguson Family Fund to help get them back on their feet.

Buildings in Florida suffered major damage. Buildings in Puerto Rico were also damaged.

Risk management will be responsible for working through those property claims.

After this string of hurricanes, Helmandollar said that she and her team and working toward getting a fuel company on retainer. One of the problems that her company faced during the hurricanes was having access to fuel, she hopes that by having a fuel company on retainer, this problem will be avoided in future instances.

Fleet through Risk Management

Helmandollar noted that fleet being overseen by risk management is atypical for her company. However, she noted that there are some benefits that come from the arrangement.

“What I find really interesting is that because fleet is included with functions like risk control as well as health and safety, we have really good opportunities to try and build our trucks and develop our specs to address some of the safety implications for our drivers,” said Helmandollar.

This can include adding three-point contact, orange seatbelts, or retrofitting different types of lifts, she added. She and her team constantly look for ways to leverage the fact that various functions are handled by one department.

In terms of day-to-day issues fleet is steady compared to the other functions she oversees and to risk management as a whole, according to Helmandollar. Due to this, she and her team are able to push themselves to take on bigger picture projects to improve Ferguson’s fleet operations.

One such project that Helmandollar and her team are currently working on is retrofitting Ferguson’s entire fleet with backup alarms.

In 2013, in an effort to reduce rear collisions — which at the time was the No. 1 type of collision that the company had — Ferguson decided to standardize all of its new medium- and heavy-duty trucks with backup alarms. This meant that every new medium- and heavy-duty truck that the company would add to its fleet from then on would be equipped with backup alarms.

Many of these trucks didn’t — and still don’t — typically come with backup alarms off the line; however, Ferguson wanted all of their trucks to have backup alarms to ensure the safety of its fleet.

“There was nothing in the industry that required backup alarms,” said Helmandollar. Being involved with fleet, I think that you find that there are all these great safety features and new technology offered in passenger cars and the usual fleets first. They don’t make their way to the medium- and heavy-duty units for many years.”

The focus for Helmandollar’s current retrofitting project stems from the fact that the lifecycles of some of the trucks Ferguson procured before 2013 haven’t ended so they’re not ready to be disposed of. In addition, Ferguson has acquired a number of companies since that time and not all of trucks that were added to the Ferguson fleet from those companies were equipped with backup alarms.

In total, Ferguson will be retrofitting nearly 600 trucks with backup alarms as part of this most recent retrofitting project. This project began in late July and it is expected to conclude in December.

“As you can imagine, we’re trying to work with each of the branches on their business need and trying to schedule these but for us it’s a priority to get them done. I think that our field folks and our drivers have embraced it as a very positive step because it’s obviously very good for them and I think that they appreciate it,” said Helmandollar.

Another project that Helmandollar and her team are working on to benefit Ferguson’s fleet is the implementation of CEI’s DriverCare. By implementing the platform, Ferguson will be able to analyze the motor vehicle records and collision data of its driver to identify where there is the opportunity to train drivers or to intervene. Helmandollar plans to combine this data with predictive analytics to address those behaviors before an accident occurs.

“If we could cross reference telematics data, collision data, and motor vehicle records, I think that would further help us identify those top performers to be recognized and those that we need to intervene before they have a major incident. I think that will be something that really changes the face of how we approach fleet safety,” said Helmandollar.

A Closer Look at Ferguson

In August 2017, Wolseley plc rebranded to Ferguson plc. Ferguson is a wholesale supplier of commercial and residential plumbing supplies. It began operations 64 years ago and has grown to become a $15 billion company with over 1,400 locations across the U.S., accounting for over 24,000 employees.

Along with plumbing supplies, Ferguson also distributes pipe, valves and fittings; heating and cooling equipment; waterworks; industrial and mechanical products; fireplaces and fire protection products; kitchen, bath, lighting, and appliances; and tools and safety equipment.

Counting the company’s fork lifts, heavy duty trucks, medium-duty trucks, light trucks, trailers, SUVs, cargo vans, and sedans the company has approximately 9,700 vehicles in its fleet.

Challenges and Looking Ahead

Helmandollar expects the biggest challenges to come to her role will come from the very technology that will also ultimately transform it.

“I think from an enterprise risk perspective we’re always looking at the advent of technology such as the internet of things. The pace of change has accelerated to such a point that we have to find ways to not only keep up with it but also try to get ahead of it and understand that how these changes in technology are going to affect our business and our future.

What companies want to avoid, she noted, is becoming the Blockbuster to somebody else’s Netflix.

Right now Ferguson may be a distribution company, but as time goes on the fate of it — and all companies — is becoming data companies, she added.

“The one with the best data is going to win. So, how are we going to leverage our business to meet that future? We talk about that a lot and we think about that a lot. It’s exciting but you also have to think about how we’re going to be doing business 10 years from now, and even five years from now,” said Helmandollar. 

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