dot-com and didn't know it
March 31, 2003
BY MICHAEL KRAUSS
Frank before you buy." That's the first ad slogan I remember
hearing as a child.
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
today, most retail car buyers "see the Internet before they
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.
"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.
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.
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.
or four years ago, we realized that we were a dot-com didn't know
it," Robinson says. "Everything we were doing was moving
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
process took a long time, and a lot of mistakes occurred,"
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
"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
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.
can be reached