Bill Powell of Automotive Resources International (ARI) knew that data held the key to reinventing the company.
ARI is largest privately held vehicle fleet management services company in the world, with revenues of over $2.6bn and responsibility for 952,000 vehicles across the globe.
The company has been family-owned for over eighty years, with a proud history of helping customers with “complex fleet” logistics. These are vocational fleets such as trucking companies, utilities, and railroads where customized vehicles are a key part of the business model. These customers need highly personalized services, and ARI handles the entire lifecycle of the fleet process including ordering, adapting, servicing, and reselling vehicles.
As the Director of Information Management at ARI, Powell had a key role in implementing the company’s 5-year strategic plan, which included a new approach to data analysis.
ARI has always been at the forefront in the use of technology as a way to provide innovative solutions to the multitude of challenges faced by managers charged with deploying and maintaining complex fleets. A unique reward program called “Partners in Excellence” rewards employees that find new ways to use technology to provide efficiency gains for ARI’s customers.
Two years ago, new challenges drove the IT team to take a fresh look at the company’s information strategy.
The volume of data was doubling every 14 months, notably due the vast amount of information generated by telematics, with fleet vehicles providing a wide variety of vehicle location and systems data to ARI on average every two minutes.
Data expectations were also rising rapidly. The company tracks information on over 14,000 different types of vehicle asset, and call center service technicians were clamoring to get real-time access to data while their customers were still on the phone. Powell knew that a new approach was needed:
“Analysis was too slow. We need to be in the moment. The business just cannot wait. Reports that take even 30 seconds, if you’re in a call center environment? That business model just can’t be supported any longer. Those reports have to be instantaneous.”
And it wasn’t only about internal access to data – information was starting to become a source of revenue for the organization. One customer turned to ARI to get a holistic view of their fleet spending in over ninety different countries, even in regions where the vehicles were managed by other fleet companies.
ARI’s business model is based on strong customer service, and data was fast becoming key to future growth. The company’s Oracle-based data warehouse had served the company well for over 16 years, but Powell knew that it was time to take a long, hard look at the current environment and see if ARI needed to do something different.
He started reaching out to other vendors for a more creative approach:
“We had to take a look at where we wanted to be and align it to our strategic plan…. We definitely needed to reinvent ourselves. ”
The company wanted to maintain high service levels and provide highly differentiated, custom services for complex fleet customers, while reducing costs:
“One of the things we pride ourselves on here at ARI is that we do not do cookie-cutter products and services. If our customer needs something unique, we’re more than happy to augment our systems, we’re more than happy to create custom reports, we’re more than happy to do any type of analysis that is necessary.”
To do this, more agility was required, with contact centers that could respond faster and resolve problems quicker. Powell and his team sat down and re-evaluated their approach from scratch, asking themselves:
“What is it that we’re really trying to solve for our customers here? How can we best handle them, above and beyond the customer service that we provide to them in the call centers?”
Customers already had the ability to access an “Insight” portal that gave them information about their fleet vehicles. Using a business intelligence tool on the site logging systems, ARI was able to determine the pattern of users’ behavior and needs.
Powell quickly saw that one of the most popular features of the site was the ability to export data to Excel for further analysis:
“By seeing that pattern, we knew that there was an opportunity to provide some additional value for our customers. They were going to Excel because we weren’t providing a service that they needed. We talked to customers, and figured out a way to fill that void.”
ARI embarked on a new vision for analytics: a system that could provide “instant gratification” for customers with self-service business intelligence using intuitive visualization. Powell knew that the right system could be a strong competitive differentiator in the industry as well as providing faster answers internally.
To implement this vision, the company did a thorough review of the different analytic technologies available and sat down with their customers to review the options.
One key customer challenged them to create some new reports that would empower them to look into their own business, ideally available through iPads.
Instead of just delivering the requested reports using traditional BI, ARI decided to propose a self-service, “data discovery” solution. The team took some of the customer’s information, modeled it in SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, and presented it to them in an evaluation meeting. Powell recalls the importance of that session in getting business buy-in for change:
We said “we hear what you’re saying, but here’s what we think you mean” and then we put Explorer in front of them. And once they saw that, they had one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments and said “Yes, that’s it – we actually were saying that, but we meant this”
It was just one of those moments when we said, “yes, this is going to be a winning hit for us, this is something here that is really going to change our industry quite a bit”.
To get the full benefits of fast data exploration, the company turned to SAP HANA’s in-memory database technology, and decided to replace their entire analytics stack.
An example fleet analysis using SAP BusinessObjects Explorer
ARI took just just three weeks to get up and running with a new analytical and predictive business intelligence solution using in-memory technology from SAP HANA for high-speed processing, SAP Data Services for data movement, and SAP BusinessObjects Explorer for analysis.
“We ran an array of tests to prove to the business that this was the technology we needed to power ourselves forward. And the results were just staggering.
We were taking information from our [Oracle-based] core systems that would take somewhere between 10 and 12 hours to run, and we were bring this analysis down to 3 to 5 seconds – to the point where the business didn’t even believe it at first!
The data is actually fun to work with now — you can actually have a conversation or talk with this information, whereas before it was a quite painful process.”
Powell believes that ARI is currently the only company in the fleet management industry able to provide this level of analytics:
“By introducing HANA, and by introducing Explorer on top of that, we’re able to really give that information back to the business, to empower them, give them the instant gratification that they were asking for…
Before, you had to use more “tribal knowledge information” – people saying “yeah, I heard of a problem here”. We’re getting out of that business. We’re more into a fact-based, decision-driving business, and using HANA allows us to be in that space.
Our business is much more engaged now, and they have the ability to ask these questions.. now it’s not just one customer we can look at, we can look at all of our customers, their spend, by make, by model, throughout the years, different trends, geography, seasonality, cross-pollination, through all of our products and services, to make compelling stories for our customers and to help them save their money.”
Transitioning to the new system has resulted in efficiencies across the business, with an estimated 5% cost reduction in total overhead expense. These included benefits for IT: the six database administrators (out of an IT team of 230) were able to redeploy efforts that used to be taken up by report writing and the creation of new indexes or aggregates into more strategic projects.
Powell believes there are even more opportunities in the future by applying Moneyball style techniques to the fleet industry. His is creating complex probability and statistical models to help customers meet their business objectives.
Organizations will be able to ask a question such as “how do I reduce my tire expense by 20%?” or “how do I reduce driver compliance by five hours per week?” The customer’s data can be plugged into models, crunched instantaneously in HANA, and used to recommend changes to existing products and services.
ARI is also working with customers to create new products and services using mobile devices:
“The fleet management industry has been slower than most to adopt mobile, but it’s now coming on hot and heavy. We have an annual conference that we host with our top customers… One of the things we’ve seen in these meetings, year after year, is more adoption of mobile technology.
Powell gave the example of tractor-trailers, that require walk-around inspections before each journey. iPhones and iPads are being used to collect that information and immediately feed it back to call centers. For example, if a problem is found, an repair-service appointment could be made on the spot.
Powell emphasized that working closely with the business was essential to the success of the project:
“To be effective with HANA, to be effective with anything in the analytics space, you have to BE the business, you have to be with business, to understand their needs, to work with them day in and day out.
Our IT group here is very outwardly facing, we’re very much hand in hand with the business. With this new technology, we’re able to develop this new enterprise architecture where it can be used everywhere, but for that to be effective, you have to understand what they business needs… we have a team of people that go out, they meet with the various lines of business, they understand their needs, they come back, and that drives our architecture”