Breaking new ground for women in fleet management

WITH ONE profession after another opening up to female participation, it was only a matter of time before the fleet world started producing one of its first women leaders. Ernita van Dalen is one of these pioneers, shaking things up, not just by being one of the first women in the job, but also by introducing a new way of doing things.

As national office manager at Essential Foods, the grain division of Pioneer Foods, she is responsible for, among other things, the administration of the company’s total fleet (truck and forklifts). “It was tough in the beginning,” she says. “You could see people weren’t all that comfortable with a woman coming in and questioning a lot of things.”
That was in 2013, when fleet was added to the growing number of portfolios managed by Van Dalen. Having worked her way up from being a general clerk in 2004, she now manages the company’s telesales division, its procurement function, as well as its fleet.

She admits that she did not know much about vehicles when she started with fleet administration, apart from what she had picked up as a child growing up with an older brother who was in the transport industry. But technical knowledge is essential for the job, she says, especially if one of your tasks is to match the right vehicles on the market to the task specifications.

The steep learning curve required her to ask many questions which elicited a range of reactions, from complete support on the part of her managers to suspicion and a certain amount of resistance from other role players.

Van Dalen was not only asking questions to educate herself; she was also questioning the way in which things had been done up to that point. Resistance would probably have been a little lower if she had kept things the same, but she introduced major changes for improving fleet efficiency.

She pioneered the use of Standard Bank’s Managed Maintenance service in the company, through which the servicing and maintenance of each vehicle is tracked and managed by a centre of experts who ensure that mechanical workshops don’t overcharge or carry out unnecessary work.

“When I took over, each maintenance job on a vehicle was individually handled by our procurement staff, without adequate reporting,” she says. Now, after successful implementation of the new system in the Western Cape where she is based, it is ready to be rolled out to the rest of the country.

Transaction Authorisation was another service which she introduced to the company when she moved the fleet to Standard Bank’s Fleet Management Card system. It automatically vets fleet card transactions and declines those that exceed certain parameters. For example, if more fuel is bought than the vehicle’s tank can accommodate, the transaction is declined. The staff member can contact the fleet manager when a transaction is declined, who can decide to override the declined transaction if necessary. The fleet manager has access to a real time. Transaction Authorisation website where they can view both approved and declined transactions as well as the reason for the decline.

In the beginning she received at least one such notification per day, but as staff members got used to the strict new measures, the exceptions dropped to less than one per week. For Van Dalen it was a positive sign that the new system was working and that she had managed to forge a clear understanding in the fleet team of the new efficiency standards.

“It is all about communication,” she says. “When you bring in a new system, you have to make sure that people understand why the changes are necessary.”

She believes that fleet management requires an equal combination of machine management and people management. While she quickly has had to learn the technical side of things, she brings deep people-management experience to the job.

In the nineties, Van Dalen studied computer administration and started her working career at a law firm. She then joined the human resources section of the Department of Correctional Services, where she dealt with staff health issues. It was an incredible learning experience working with people, she says.

But after a while she found that the emotional strain of the job was affecting the well-being of her young family, and she joined Pioneer Foods.

Van Dalen says the performance-orientated nature of the private sector suits her personality.

She enjoys facing new challenges and believes in continuous learning. As she worked her way up in the organisation, she has achieved qualifications in office management and credit management, and has started studying supply chain management, a field in which she plans to further pioneer.