A vehicle upfit is defined as “to customize a vehicle by adding extra features.” These features may be tailor-made or part of a line of products by aftermarket product companies. The U.S. light-duty auto-parts aftermarket market is projected to reach $290 billion in 2021. Add in medium- and heavy-duty aftermarket products, and the projection is closer to $390 billion.
With dozens of new and innovative automotive products released each year, at least one is likely the next best solution that helps you manage and run your fleet more smoothly and/or safely.
Where does one start with so many options? Where do you find and engage with the right people to help you find those products? How do you implement and test them? Who needs to be involved in the decision-making process? Why or why not is this the next best decision? What do you need to know about a full scale roll out?
Start with What You Know
It can become overwhelming—so let’s slow down. First, start with what you know. From there, you can be introduced to the new and unknown.
Staying connected to the needs of your drivers is key. After all, they will be using the equipment. At times, you, as the fleet manager, have an idea to solve a recognizable problem evident from a leadership perspective and need their buy in. Alternatively, they may also have an idea to which they need you to listen and get leadership buy in.
“I’ve found that the best starting point is to listen to the operations team. They have needs such as improving reporting capabilities, maintaining safety, needing better video recorders, etc. Then I go to shows like NTEA and NAFA and walk the floor to look at new devices, vendors, gather data and info, and return to the team with options I’ve found,” says one fleet manager who prefers to remain anonymous.
The pandemic has changed all these opportunities to network. As a result, “Webinars, Google, e-mailing companies to request info and meetings have been the best resources, before transferring information to the team,” added the fleet manager.
Do not underestimate the power of your network either. The fleet industry is filled with many experienced fleet managers and providers who find their greatest joy in helping others and sharing their own experiences. If you find your fleet has a specific problem, reach out and ask a peer or two what they might know and then be prepared to listen.
This is also an ideal time to expand your own network, by introducing yourself to other seasoned professionals whom you can trust.
Once initial research is completed, it’s time to share and start the decision-making process with your team. During this stage, you will need to recognize and reinforce the fact that a change is necessary, exciting and sometimes a challenge.
“Identify your goals and stakeholders, Fleet, Procurement, Safety, IT, the CIO. Everyone needs to be involved and on the same page to understand when, how, and why we are making this change. When the message isn’t clear, the project fails every time. Decision making is not done in a vacuum,” says Charlie Mahoney, business development manager for Derive Systems.
As British author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek says, “Always start with ‘why’. Why are you looking at a solution for this problem? Then, address the following:
● What is the best solution for this challenge?
● With whom are we going to partner?
● When do we want to pilot this solution?
● Where is the ideal testing location?
● How will we test and measure success?’
“It’s important to meet with vendors to home in on the one to partner to work with. After that, it’s on to installing or updating our fleet vehicles,” says the anonymous fleet manager.
Vendors are the experts for their solutions, just as you are the expert on your fleet. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and need.
“Upfitting on anything new is ideal,” says Mahoney. You’re able to build the solution into the cap cost, gain the benefit for the life cycle of the vehicle, and it is ready to go when the vehicle is delivered, eliminating downtime for a field installation.”
The implementation of aftermarket products for fleet is handled most often in one of four ways on both new and legacy fleet vehicles:
● Ship-thru/to upfitter companies
● Mobile installers
● Self-installation by internal employees
● At a dealership.
A modern work vehicle needs modern solutions. Often, an upfitter can provide all the solutions a fleet may need. However, fleet managers are responsible as their fleet advocate to bring new solutions to the upfitter. Ship-thru/to upfitters have the capacity to touch every part of a new vehicle and significantly modify specifically to each use, job and organizational need prior to a fleet receiving the vehicle.
“There are actually two options here: ship-thru and drop-ship,” clarifies Gary Heisterkamp, COO at BrandFX Body Company. “Say you have a GM truck being built in Ft. Wayne. A drop-ship code is assigned from the OEM to that truck. After production, that truck would go into GMs transport system and show up in Ft Worth to our Brand FX facility. From there, we complete the upfitting and deliver it directly to the client.
“A ship-thru upfitter is usually located practically on site of an OEM. Once built, that GM truck would be delivered to the ship-thru facility, upfits completed, truck returned to GM and then entered into the transport lineup to be delivered to a GM dealer, who then delivers it to the driver. We happen to be both.”
Bruce Birdsell, fleet manager for MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions, says of his fleet’s drop-ship upfitting partner, “We prefer working with our local upfitters. It offers us better control, leverage and visibility; plus, it keeps our money local and supporting our own business partners.”
He further explains, “It shortens delivery time since we are not relying on additional transportation, especially with the current railcar shortages and trucking backlogs. Nor do we want someone to drive 1,800 miles to get it to us, only to have to do an oil change on a now not-so-brand-new vehicle.”
Many upfitters manufacture and install their own parts, while also installing a myriad of other aftermarket accessories they find beneficial to promote or particular accessories fleet managers may request.
Heisterkamp of BrandFX Body admits, “Our core business is selling (and installing) our own stuff. We have 350 manufacturing employees, and our primary job is to keep them working. However, when a client makes a request, we do what we can to get them what they need and want even when it’s outside of our core practice.”
A major advantage to partnering with a ship-thru or drop-ship upfitter, is consistency in upfitting work. Even if using a variety of upfitters for different vehicles, those same upfitters repeat the same work on all the same new vehicles, which makes this strategy a very scalable concept.
Unfortunately, depending on fleet size, it’s likely you may only be updating one-third of your fleet at a time. To fully realize the benefit of your modifications, especially if they are safety related, and if your next best aftermarket solution is at your fingertips, and the upfitter cannot or will not install, it’s necessary to utilize the second option of installations: mobile technicians.
Starting at the upfitter with new vehicles is certainly an easy button to take advantage of, but one must also consider most vehicles still in use: the legacy vehicles.
"Mobile installations are very important for us. Because we retrofit legacy vehicles, mobile installers are the only way to take care of that with our dispersed fleet,” comments the anonymous fleet manager.
Mobile service is one of the fastest-growing segments in fleet. The ability to have an installer, technician, fuel provider, etc., coming to your pooled vehicles reduces significant downtime and the stress of finding a brick-and-mortar provider. Mobile service offers a great deal of flexibility; they can travel to wherever your vehicles are located, at your convenience, and they can install nearly any product you need added.
“In our opinion, there are three advantages to using a mobile upfitter: speed of execution, convenience and quality,” says Dustin Simpson, vice president and co-owner at Done Right Installation Group Inc. (DRIG).
Not to mention, using mobile upfitters is very scalable. Any new product or system implementation for your fleet must be capable of being repeated on every vehicle regardless of location.
Armed with a complete list of vehicles including year, make and model, locations, and contacts for each location, a mobile installation team can build out an implantation plan and schedule to suit any fleet’s requirements.
“At DRIG, we have a system for implementations on large-scale jobs that includes real-time reporting of progress, quality assurance and dispatching ‘boots on the ground.’ For jobs with vehicle counts of several hundred to several thousand, we utilize our nationwide tech network to bring teams of installers in to complete a job inside of a few days or a few weeks, depending on the size. Work can be scheduled during a fleet’s normal business operations, at nights or on weekends to keep trucks on the road without disruption.”
Mobile installation teams are frequently an ideal partner when piloting new solutions. They often encounter new products and are constantly on the cutting edge of new technologies.
“Learning about the array of amazing products in our industry is definitely one of the most exciting parts of our business,” shares Simpson. “When we come across one we haven’t installed before, our quality control team gets a copy of the installation guide before the job starts, we meet with the customer about a plan, installation locations, etc., and even call the manufacturer for clarification if needed in ensure a successful project.”
Disadvantages of using a mobile installer include possible communications dry spots, especially in remote areas.
“We’ve yet to find a mobile installation vendor that is 100% nationwide. In some cases, we have had three different installation teams to cover our markets,” shares the anonymous fleet manager.
While it may be more expensive due to trip charges, especially in certain areas with fewer vehicles, engaging a mobile upfitter may be a better alternative to the next upfitting option: self-installation.
Taking the self-installation route is perfect for some organizations, especially with an established facility and trained workforce. Generally, self-installs offer lower cost —parts and no external labor—and timing could work into your favor.
“Time is everything. We work new installations into our schedule and there’s no additional transportation needed to get to an installer or upfitter. It certainly shortens our turn around,” reports Birdsell, “One downside is that sometimes we have to figure some things out on our own. I’m fortunate, however; my in-house mechanic is really good at that and even likes the challenge.”
That challenge can be part of the excitement for an in-house mechanic, but not for other fleet teams. In managing a mobile workforce that chooses the self-installation route, additional questions must be addressed, such as: “How will you hold your drivers accountable in completing the installation, and doing so accurately?” “Do they have the necessary tools?” “What training and support is available?” “What happens in the event of failure of the device, who is responsible?”
“A company trying to do this for themselves may take months to complete the task, and it could take their attention away from their core business,” says Simpson.
The solution you try to implement should not take away from the core business but rather enhance the operation.
“Our focus is on delivery of our product to our clients. We would not wish to put that responsibility onto our drivers,” mentioned another fleet manager.
Dealership Upfitting Solutions
Dealerships are a cornerstone to many fleet operations for courtesy deliveries, as well as fulfilling fleet needs form their inventory. In both scenarios, the dealership is likely to offer some light upfitting solutions, performed either internally or with a local partner.
Similar to new-vehicle orders heading to the upfitter, upfits added at the dealership can be built into the cap cost of the new vehicle—certainly a more affordable option both financially and timewise than a ship-thru upfitter, especially when the addition is small or simple.
Vendors and FMs work in tandem to coordinate receiving the upfit product prior to the vehicle’s arrival and to ensure proper installation support. Notably, the more dealerships serving your fleet needs, the more significant the administration time will be to organize the deliveries for all parties involved.
“We work really hard to expedite delivery of our fleet vehicles in a timely manner whether the vehicle is from out of stock, a factory order, or a courtesy delivery,” shares Roger Hoon, fleet manager, Bob Hook Chevrolet in Louisville, Kentucky. “Occasionally, we are requested to add aftermarket services installations and ensure the receiving driver knows every feature.”
Does every driver know what has been added to their new vehicle? And how it operates? Why it has been added? Communication to the drivers has likely been shared before receiving the vehicle, and now is the time to observe the results.
This newly upfitted vehicle is the latest version of your future fleet. Congratulations! Let’s recap the installation process:
● How smoothly did the installation
● What could it have been improved?
● Did it take longer or shorter than you expected?
As you answer these questions and others your team propose, it’s necessary to continue communicating with the drivers, installers and your team to successfully repeat the process.
“Communication, communication, communication. It is absolutely vital for the success of a job—and it goes both ways,” adds Vanderburg.
Installation is first half of this journey; the second half is all about the product. In the beginning, you identified your goals and the purpose behind this application. What were your beginning points? What are your end goals? Is it operating as you expected? How much time do you expect to take if this is a pilot of a future roll out?
“Some are geniuses at this stage,” states Mahoney. “Metrics matter, because financially it tells the story of why and how you are paying for it.”
If you can measure the beginning and end points, you can manage the success of the upfit and other fleet products and determine if the product or upfit becomes part of your new specs. Technology will continue to change, as will the tools required to meet customer demands. Specs must also evolve as business changes. Do not settle for “how it has always been done.”
When you discover a new upgrade of improvement, introduce it to your team and explain why you think it will be beneficial. Take your ideas to the upfitters. Explain why you need it, and who is going to be involved. Communicate with everyone throughout the installation process, then monitor after it has been received.
Developing new specs is not just an exciting new fleet project; it’s an overall business success project revisited year after year.
About the Author
Lori Olson, CAFS is an active member in the fleet industry, serving as Secretary of the Heartland NAFA Chapter, as well as on the AFLA Board of Directors.
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