Company was dot-com and didn't know it

March 31, 2003

BY MICHAEL KRAUSS

"Z Frank before you buy." That's the first ad slogan I remember hearing as a child.

It belonged to a Chevrolet dealership on North Western Avenue in Chicago. It was simple yet imaginative, urging buyers to see the owner Zollie Frank for the best price, service and selection of new and used autos. Today's Internet delivers on Zollie Frank's promise. You can check out the best price for your car at the Kelley Blue Book Web site. Visit Edmunds.com for more about features. You can also browse cars.com or go to one of the auto manufacturer's sites.

I'd guess today, most retail car buyers "see the Internet before they buy."

Yet, in a poetic juxtaposition, Zollie Frank's company (now run by his son, Jim), the privately held Des Plaines, Ill.-based Wheels Inc., uses Internet technology to drive a $2 billion fleet management business. Today, Fortune 500 companies -- companies with large sales or customer support forces that expect cars as perks or necessities for their job -- rely on Wheels Inc.

Strategic business need
"Our clients are big companies that have big fleets of cars and good credit," says Wheels' vice president of marketing, Bill Robinson. "We serve people who have a strategic business need to have a fleet of automobiles." Wheels handles vehicle acquisition, leases them to their customers, then provides an array of services including registration, monitoring vehicle maintenance, fuel purchase, collision and safety. They even help with resale to optimize value.

This complex set of processes once was handled entirely manually. Today, Wheels has fully Web-enabled the process, reducing costs for its customers and improving its own efficiency. It's also improved the experience for the end-user while outsourcing much of the work to that user.

We wouldn't typically think of Wheels as a darling of the dot-com era, but the company is quietly applying all of the dot-com principles to its business and reaping many of the benefits that were casually hyped and touted in the late '90s.

"Three or four years ago, we realized that we were a dot-com didn't know it," Robinson says. "Everything we were doing was moving online."

Once upon a time
Before the Internet, when a client's employee ordered a new car, they got a bulky packet in the mail showing the cars they could choose, and the colors and options they could pick. They'd fill out a form, check boxes and mail or fax it back to their employer, who entered the information manually into a computer system. That information was sent to Wheels where it was manually re-entered into a car manufacturer's computer order entry system to buy the vehicle.

"That process took a long time, and a lot of mistakes occurred," Robinson says.

Using Wheels Inc.'s Web-based Driverview application, the process is much improved. When the time comes, the driver gets an e-mail with a password to access the Web-based application. Order cycle time has been dramatically reduced and errors all but eliminated. It's less expensive for Wheels' customers and for Wheels Inc.

Under the radar
To my way of thinking, Wheels is red-hot and an untold Internet success story, though the company has made various lists of innovative information technology companies, top e-commerce companies and best b-to-b Web sites since 1997. Noting the breadth and scope of Wheels' application of Web technology, these honors are easy to understand.

Consider this: If you're a major pharmaceutical company, you could have a $ 100 million asset in your sales force's cars. You may be operating 5,000 or more cars. That's a portfolio and needs to be managed scientifically. Managing it well can make a big difference to the bottom line. Depending on the makes, models and ages of the cars, manufacturer promotions and incentives, the service history of the vehicles and their expected required future service, do you hold or sell cars in your fleet?

This activity may not be a core competence of the business. And even if you have experienced fleet managers on staff, you probably aren't going to have the process automation technology that Wheels offers.

Wheels Inc.'s Web-based Fleetview application provides its clients, who are senior procurement and operations executives, with easily accessible and timely information so they can monitor and control costs and optimize the value of their asset base.

Better bottom-line management
"Improved profitability could come from a simple step like reminding a particular sales rep to shop around for a better service station when he fills up the tank," Robinson adds. Wheels monitors the average costs for fuel across all of its clients' fleets and reports unusual disparities.

One of Wheels' newest applications is a Web-based program that offers the employee's car for sale to other of the client's employees, reducing the cost and hassle of routine turnover of vehicles.

I asked Robinson, who is a graduate of Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Evanston, Ill., how he found his job at Wheels Inc.

"The Internet," he said. "I was working as a marketing consultant and thinking about making a change. I consulted the business school's Web site, which has career services for alumni."

I guess this new Internet technology "has wheels" after all.

Michael Krauss can be reached at michael.krauss@diamondcluster.com or news@ama.org.

 

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