Career Leadership Award: The mail must go through … and does

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Lew Flowers is manager of vehicle maintenance at the U.S. Postal Service in Oklahoma City, and he’s responsible for more than 2,100 vehicles, 51 employees in three locations, and
a $5 million budget. But that’s only part of why he’s the recipient of CCJ’s 2007 Career Leadership Award.

If Lew Flowers ever gets flustered, you’d probably never know it. He appears to be the laid-back, affable sort, with a great sense of humor.

But when it comes to vehicle maintenance and technician training, he’s as serious – and effective – as they come.

Flowers is manager of vehicle maintenance at the Oklahoma District U.S. Postal Service in Oklahoma City, and he’s responsible for more than 2,100 vehicles, 51 employees in three locations, and a $5 million budget. But that’s only part of why he’s this year’s Career Leadership Award recipient.

Getting started
As a young man growing up in the Tidewater area of Virginia, Flowers had enormous respect for his father – who was a maintenance manager for the Department of Transportation – and for his dad’s love of restoring boats. Eventually, Flowers got his own small boat and came to enjoy fishing, crabbing and all the other pleasures afforded by life on the Chesapeake Bay.

In high school, he played “a little football,” and played tenor sax in a local band, “The Swinging Hangmen.” But it was his interest in engines that led him to become a diesel mechanic trainee throughout high school and college. He has since earned multiple Automotive Service Excellence certifications in automotive and heavy truck repairs.

After maintenance management and training stints at UPS and the U.S. Department of Justice, Flowers became a training developer at the USPS in Oklahoma, and became maintenance manager there in 1989.

The daily grind
Like most maintenance professionals, Flowers rarely has a “typical” day, but “I always check voice and e-mails to see if there are any problems,” he says. And he believes in heading off problems by staying close to the action. “I try to talk to the shop supervisors every day to see what’s going on,” he says.

Of course, there are mountains of reports to review – a result of a combination of the Technology and Maintenance Council’s VMRS system and proprietary software. “You have to know what you’re looking for,” he says. For instance, “I look for vehicles that have been in the shop for an excessive period of time, then try to find out why.”

Flowers’ goal is to have 97 percent of the fleet up and running at all times, and “We’re nearly there,” he says. “We also want to spend 80 percent of shop time on preventive maintenance, and only 20 percent on unscheduled repairs. PM time used to be only 59 percent, but last year we were up to 77 percent.”

Partly responsible for that improvement is Flowers’ choice of premium components, such as higher-cold-cranking-amp batteries. “They’re a better brand, and more expensive,” he says, “but we’ve dramatically reduced no-starts.” Also responsible is the fact that Flowers, who has an extensive background in training, encourages his technicians to become ASE-certified.

Part of the quality-improvement scheme at USPS is an annual, independent review of maintenance, shop appearance, stock room, safety, information availability and other items. And Flowers’ people periodically conduct their own reviews to be ready. “We could say, ‘Sure, everything’s OK,’ but the results can be quite different when you’re out in the shop,” he admits. “Last year, we scored a 70 percent, and we’re striving for 85. We’ve got some work to do, but we know where we can make improvements.”

An interesting wrinkle is found in the parts room. Most parts are supplied and owned by vendors, on consignment, and aren’t purchased until they’re used. “We’re still trying to cut down on the part numbers that we own,” says Flowers.

While some service outsourcing is done – mainly tires, and major engine and transmission repairs – “We do our own warranty work,” he says. “We can do it faster.”

The green scene
While USPS operates some medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, the vast majority are the familiar, white, light-duty postal delivery trucks – which face a harsh duty cycle. And for new procurements, 75 percent of those vehicles are required to run on alternative fuels/energy sources. “Right now, we’ve got about 200 compressed-natural-gas vehicles, and around 70 E-85-capable units,” says Flowers. “We’re still evaluating them, and always looking for new technologies and incentives.”

While emissions testing is not yet required for his vehicles, the USPS does its own tests anyway, according to Flowers, who is a member of the Clean Cities Coalition. Flowers’ shop even has its own exhaust-gas analyzer, an expensive testament to his proactive stance.

Share alike
Seeking ways to improve and share his knowledge of maintenance, Flowers joined the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Oklahoma Trucking Association and TMC, where he has served on and chaired numerous study groups and task forces, dealing with VMRS codes, future trucks and brake lining classification to help ensure that aftermarket linings would perform consistently with those originally installed by OEMs.

“At TMC, it was great meeting other maintenance managers and trainers,” he says. “It’s been a great opportunity to share what we’ve learned.”

For his efforts, he earned TMC’s highest honor, the Silver Spark Plug, in 1997. He became general chairman the same year, and recipient of the Peggy Fisher Leadership Award in 1999. Few would argue that he has become one of TMC’s most respected members.

“From his first moments as a TMC member, Lew Flowers has been actively involved either as a task force chairman, study group chairman, board member, etc.,” says Bob Flesher, managing director of vehicle maintenance for Moon Township, Pa.-based FedEx Ground and past recipient of the Career Leadership Award. “As a result, he received the Silver Spark Plug in one of the shortest periods of time in Council history. Even after serving as general chairman, Lew still insisted on being active, returning to the board and serving as our VMRS Codes Committee chairman for the past several years.”

“Lew was the first person I met who was employed as a maintenance trainer for a fleet,” recalls Duke Drinkard, vice president of maintenance for Columbia, S.C.-based Southeastern Freight Lines, and also a past recipient of the Career Leadership Award. “In our first short encounter at an S.5 Task Force meeting on mechanic training, Lew showed me that there was a better way of working with people in order to get them involved. He had a true interest in the people, as well as the work that they were able to produce. His training style gave me a new direction of working with people in order to get them to study and work to improve their skills.”

What next?
Today, Flowers lives in Oklahoma City with Tammy, his wife of 36 years, and their poodle, Spanky. They have a grown son and daughter, and three grandchildren. Flowers is active in his church, and he enjoys golf and driving his RV to University of Oklahoma football games.

But what if work weren’t an issue – what would he do? His involvement with his church offers a clue: “I’d probably do some mission work to help those less fortunate,” he says. “And Tammy would like to be a street nurse. She’s got a big heart. We’ve been blessed, and would like to help others.”

Just what we’d expect from a leader.

About the Career Leadership Award
CCJ’s Career Leadership Award is now in its 31st year. Formerly known as the Fleet Maintenance Executive Career Leadership Award, its new name, the Technology and Maintenance Career Leadership Award, better represents the evolving role of today’s maintenance executive, and the increasing importance of information technology.

The award is not a contest to be won, but a distinction earned throughout a career of dedication to professionalism and excellence in technology and maintenance management.

Anyone can nominate a candidate who has made a career of fleet maintenance management simply by writing a letter, making a call or sending an e-mail to any CCJ editor, indicating why the individual being nominated should be considered.

The final few candidates are checked out as thoroughly as possible to verify their accomplishments, involvement, leadership and contributions to the profession.

Personal and professional integrity, and the candidate’s reputation among his or her peers, also weigh heavily in the final decision.