Career Leadership Award: Oren Summer

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Meet a hands-on guy who wasn’t content to take care of just his own fleet. His contributions to other fleets’ welfare and to the industry as a whole are well documented. Maybe he’s even helped your fleet. Read on to see why Oren Summer is both a champion and this year’s Career Leadership Award recipient.

“I’ve always been interested in mechanical things,” says Oren Summer, who, as a teen, declined involvement in his family’s construction business in favor of his fascination with motor vehicles. He played some football and baseball as a youth, but he “preferred laying down rubber in front of the high school.”

While his mission is more sophisticated today, he freely admits to still being a motorhead – and he has no regrets about where that road has taken him.

Career jumpstart
In his early years, Summer’s vehicle of choice would have been a ’62 Chevy Impala SS, with the rare, factory, 425-hp, 409 engine. Alas, his first car was a ’58 Volkswagen Beetle convertible, complete with a malady commonly associated with air-cooled engines – no heat. No question, keeping that Bug on the road put his technical skills at the top of his playlist.

Summer’s mechanical inclinations finally found a financially gainful home in 1969 – the same year he graduated from college – when he started working at Carolina Freight Carriers in his hometown of Cherryville, N.C. That was also the year – “in fact, the same month” – that he and his sweetheart, Guy Ann, were married.

Working through the ranks at Carolina, from shop mechanic to various maintenance management positions, Summer had become director of maintenance by the early ’80s and served in that position for 13 years with responsibility for more than 15,000 pieces of equipment, 42 shops and more than 450 mechanics. “Those were fun years,” he says. “We solved a lot of problems.”

In good company
In 1985, Summer’s longtime friend and, at the time, boss, Hugh Watts – who was CCJ’s 1988 Career Leadership Award recipient – persuaded him to join the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC). Watts knew that maintenance managers who share information and experience with their peers are more effective at their jobs.

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“Being around such knowledgeable people was a little intimidating at first,” Summer says. “I remember my first presentation there. I was holed up in my hotel room for a couple of days rehearsing and fine-tuning what I’d say.”

Soon enough, he’d gained the respect of the TMC community, and wound up chairing several task forces and Study Groups, dealing with many of the same challenges he was seeing at Carolina – such as radiator solder bloom and silicate dropout, short-lived incandescent headlights and other electrical woes.

In fact, Summer was a pioneer in solving a problem his fleet and many others were experiencing at the time: Oil leaking from wheel seals was a nuisance that was contaminating brakes, threatening bearing life and degrading safety.

“Wheel seal maintenance costs at Carolina were $0.105 per 100 miles for linehaul tractors, and $0.12 per 100 miles for trailers and dollies,” he remembers. “This was two times our cost of clutch replacements, two-and-a-half times transmission repair costs, two times electrical charging system repairs, and two times starting system repair costs.”

Summer figured he might be able to attack the problem with a lubricant that wasn’t an oil or a grease, but something in between, so it wouldn’t leak past a damaged or improperly installed seal. “We called our lubricant supplier, who steered us toward a semifluid, synthetic grease that had the properties we were looking for,” he recalls.

After extensive testing, Summer noted positive results. After a year or so, “our seal replacement costs were down to $0.055 per 100 miles on linehaul tractor axles, and $0.039 per 100 miles on trailers and dollies,” he says. “That’s about a 50 percent reduction in costs.”

He’s quick to caution, however, against letting a solved problem create a new one. “Even if you’re not looking at brakes because of leaky seals, you should still be looking at brakes,” he says. “That’s basic maintenance.”

For his work at TMC, Summer has received several awards, including the coveted Silver Spark Plug in 1993. And he went on to serve as general chairman in 1995. “Oren Summer has been both a steadfast supporter of TMC and of doing the right thing for the industry,” notes Robert Braswell, TMC’s technical director. “He demonstrates quiet competence when tackling tough technical challenges, such as the ABS connector/multiplexing issue in the late ’90s. Thanks to the leadership of professionals like Oren, the industry arrived at a practical solution.”

“Oren’s contributions to the industry and TMC have been wide and varied,” adds TMC Executive Director Carl Kirk. “He has contributed greatly to our Electrical and Instruments and Engine Study Groups, and he served as general chairman during a pivotal time when the industry was going through the ABS connector debate.”

A mid-Summer dream
During Summer’s tenure as director of maintenance, Carolina Freight Carriers had developed a first-rate, in-house breakdown service. In 1993, Summer took a gamble, betting that he could sell that service to other fleets, “if we treated their equipment as though it were our own.”

That year, Carolina Breakdown Service was formed. It’s now called FleetNet America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Best Corp., and is the largest independent breakdown service in America. “We wanted it to be a business, and we were in it to succeed,” says Summer. “We’d been involved in fleet maintenance for a long time, so we knew how much it cost to have a truck down.”

Summer admits that growing FleetNet America was scary business at times. “I knew maintenance, but I had never run a business before, and there was a lot of trial and error,” he says. “There were times when I wondered if I’d done the right thing. We never would have gotten where we are today without the resources and support of Arkansas Best Corporation and, in particular, ABC’s vice president, Bob Meyers.”

Today, FleetNet America covers emergency breakdown services – including mechanical, tires and towing – for more than 750 fleets, 24/7. Summer attributes much of the company’s success

Summer (right) receives CCJ’s 2005 Technology & Maintenance Career Leadership Award from CCJ Editor Paul Richards at a dinner held last month in Summer’s honor.

to his “call coordinators” who have an average of more than 20 years in fleet maintenance, ranging from shop management to floor mechanic. “These guys know what they’re talking about,” he says. “So when they take a call, they understand the problem and can make intelligent repair decisions.”

A plus for customers who contact the company for service is that nearly all calls are answered initially by the cheerful “Voice of FleetNet,” Kathy Sharp. “People feel like they know her,” says Summer. “Let’s face it – customers don’t call here because they want to. They’re broken down on the road, and they’re not happy. Kathy has a way of defusing that situation and assuring customers that help is on the way. She then hands the call over to a coordinator.”

Once a coordinator determines an appropriate course of action, he or she contacts a member of the FleetNet vendor network near the site of the breakdown, and repairs are begun, either on the road or at the vendor’s facility. The vendor network consists of more than 60,000 screened and rated service providers.

Not one to sit back in his office, Summer spends his day in close communication with the company’s various departments, “listening to how we’re handling our customers, and making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

“Oren is a leader with a keen eye for detail,” says Mike Hagaman, FleetNet’s vice president of sales and marketing. “He’s committed to quality of service, and he won’t stand for less. I know we’d actually turn down business if Oren didn’t think we could service it properly.”

Beyond breakdowns
Thanks to Summer’s maintenance experience, FleetNet America provides far more than recovery and road repairs. The company keeps detailed data for each customer and event, which can be used to pinpoint specification and maintenance problems. The goal, says Summer, is to make sure customers have all the information they need to improve their operations.

For example, “We can help our customers base their PMs on breakdown data,” he says. “I see a lot of dirty laundry, but I want our customers to see what their problems actually are. We try to help, and it establishes trust. I want to make maintenance managers look like heroes.” Indeed, many of his customers are TMC fleet members who view FleetNet America as a valuable maintenance partner, rather than a vendor.

“I’ve known Oren since the early ’80s, and I have used FleetNet since August of 2001,” says Bob Flesher, managing director of vehicle maintenance for FedEx Ground, based in Moon Township, Pa. “I had a real mess on my hands with multiple, questionable breakdown vendors