2020 Flexy Winner: Stewardship, Change, and COVID-19

By Don Dunphy

April 2020

We caught up with 2020 FLEXY Award Winner Steve Larsen, Director of Procurement and Fuel at Ruan Transportation Management Systems to discuss crisis management. Everyone working at Ruan has been charged with helping minimize the impact on operations that the coronavirus has caused.   

As many reports and first-person accounts can affirm, many stores are faced with shortages due to supply chain issues as a result of panic buying. At times like these, the role of the trucking industry charged with getting the merchandise to our stores cannot be underestimated. 
Larsen spoke to NAFA from his home where he and his wife are working remotely. What follows is a wide-ranging discussion about current needs, how Ruan is stepping up to the challenges at hand, as well as the efforts that gained him his Excellence in Corporate/Private Fleet or Mobility Management FLEXY.

Making Changes to Meet Pandemic Challenges
“When this coronavirus situation began to develop overseas, Ruan put in place a cross-functional Business Continuity Task Force to immediately start to plan as much as we could and quickly and effectively respond to what began to develop,” Larsen explains.
A key example of planning involved reworking communications protocols to include:

  • The initiation of a Business Continuity email address devoted to accepting and answering employee questions, 
  • A website featuring the latest updates and advice not only on the current situation, but how best to work through it. 
  • Daily communications to every employee with the latest news (i.e. the need for blood donations, telemedical services offered for free), field operations (shelter-in-place forms and updated, state-level changes, DMV closures) and employee action impacts which share information such as how employees have helped procure sanitizing products around the country, and more.
“We also communicate out learning resources focusing on cleaning and disinfecting guidelines, using remote working tools, and how to talk to children about COVID-19,” Larsen adds. “Our Tools for Leaders communications offer tips for engaging team members during times of change, tips to decrease stress and anxiety and guidelines to increase virtual work productivity.”

Protective Measures
Ruan Transport strives to protect team members and customers while performing the essential function of transporting food, beverages, medical supplies and other essential products where they are needed. “We have reduced slip-seating (the sharing of trucks) as much as workable, but it’s not possible to do so in all locations and still serve our customer needs,” Larsen explains. “For example, many of Ruan’s grocery operations are slip-seated. That work must continue, but wherever trucks continue to be shared, our operations have instituted cleaning procedures before and after use of each truck.”
The company had a business continuity plan in place before the pandemic, but no one could have expected an event of this magnitude as recently as even six months ago. Consequently, the plan fell far short. “The Business Continuity Plan has been revised and enhanced throughout this process,” Larsen says, stating this wake-up call will find all organizations – Ruan included - better prepared to deal with any situation in the future.
To that end, Larsen suggests that other fleets who need to make emergency changes should:
  • Put in place a cross-functional response team that can dedicate what time is needed to help guide the response.
  • Provide ongoing, frequent, open and transparent communications to all team members in all situations. Do not try to hold any information back.
  • Know that new and unusual situations will continue to come at you. Be mentally prepared to be flexible. However, keep your organization's values at the forefront.
A Sense of Stewardship
Because of the nature of trucking, with large vehicles running extensive routes, it became an imperative for Ruan to reduce its environmental impact while, at the same time, securing an alternative fuel that could be price-stable and ensure a strong ROI.
“A relationship was started in 2009 between our senior management and owners of a dairy business in Indiana,” Larsen says. “Ruan was already a key player in milk hauling … so this relationship led to discussions about using bio-digested methane as natural gas for trucks.”
Biogas is created when animal waste, or manure, decomposes. Capturing biogas from cattle, hog, and poultry farms can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and recovering the methane from the biogas can provide a cost-effective source of renewable energy.
“Once the project was beyond the 2011 launch, Ruan could combine our equipment vendor and fuel supplier relationships with the operational knowledge we gained to be well-positioned to expand alternative fuel vehicle usage faster than other fleets that were still in the early ‘thought’ stage,” Larsen says.
These formative steps and substantial customer interest in CNG-powered fleets, led to further Ruan’s alt-fuel growth. The organization is not done yet. “More recently, our Maintenance, Assets and Procurement teams are leading new waves of alt fuels expansion – including continued B20 biodiesel usage nationwide, renewable hydrocarbon diesel, and Battery-Electric Vehicles.”

Forward-Thinking Stakeholders
Larsen states that, unlike a common narrative where many senior managers’ minds need to be moved off the status quo, Ruan Transport has been very progressive in its vision for change and in leveraging partnerships. “The initial interest came from our forward-thinking CEO’s discussions on natural gas power with a prospective, large new customer,” Larsen says. “For us, it wasn’t ‘should we do this at all,’ but instead, ‘can and how should we do this?’ In many cases, companies may find the opposite situation – starting with vendor relationships, proposals, analyses, then generate the business case up to senior management.”
Other areas of change might not be the first in consideration, yet Larsen asserts they are equally important. “Safety, especially when dealing with new fuel types, is critical. You also need to be mindful of insurance. Work with your insurance carriers to get things in line, especially with battery-electric vehicles being so new to the space.”
Larsen adds, “There are capital costs involved, as some alt fuels technology require investment in more expensive equipment, compared to diesel. There needs to be a good business case and operating plans that make sense.”  Larsen says to be mindful of special handling of incentives – including tracking and reporting requirements.
Change management is required when making big moves between fuel types. Operations associates like drivers, dispatch teams, and management need to be on board. Larsen says the direct approach is the best. “How does this change the driver experience? If you can articulate that this will be for the better for them, support is generally reachable.” 
Once the new fuels and supporting equipment are added to the fleet, maintenance and asset management will necessarily experience significant changes. Bringing in these teams early in the collaboration, Larsen states, helps alleviate and address concerns.

How Might Other Fleets Effect Change?
Ruan, and ultimately their customers, realized substantial reductions in CO2, NOx, and other emissions resulting from each of their alt fuels technologies. “In addition, we are proud that we’ve displaced many millions of gallons of diesel consumption with fully-renewable fuels,” Larsen says.
How would Larsen advise other fleets who want to make such changes? “Use industry resources. Watch for webinars, conferences, panel discussions and work sessions on many of the alternative fuel options available.” Larsen also suggests drawing from the network of like-minded fleet managers who have already taken the plunge. “Many of your peers have probably already had the same questions you have, and you can leverage their experience to ramp up your knowledge.”
Larsen also suggests being conservative when initiating alt-fuel integration, starting with modest programs or pilots, gaining experience and making improvements before ramping up to huge volumes.
He also recommends not passing on any early easy wins. “Start with things like biodiesel consumption,” Larsen says. “These are easy to implement, with no impact on drivers. This gives you and your customers sustainability benefits right away without any structural changes needed.”
Ultimately, Larsen concludes, the customer is the focus and the key to progress, and all fleets should keep that end-user firmly in mind. After all, efforts that maximize productivity and cost efficiency benefit the consumer, producer, and transportation carrier alike. “Ruan Transport is willing to bring new ideas to our customers to try to gain their support. If they’re interested, we’re always glad to help explore together.”

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