Driving a culture of innovation at Merchants Fleet

For the past 60 years, privately-owned Merchants Fleet has provided fleet management and leasing solutions to a broad range of businesses, governments, and educational institutions. And according to Jeanine Charlton, the company’s SVP and chief technology and digital officer, 2021 was their best year ever, helped in large part to its approach to digital transformation and an emphasis on organizational culture. But with each milestone comes even greater resolve to strengthen, especially on harnessing the complexities of remote working, talent acquisition and fostering a workforce restless to learn.

“Learning is really embedded in the company,” Charlton says. “In fact, we’ve implemented what we call a Learn IQ program. As a company, we’ve gotten away from a tuition assistance model to what we call micro credentials. So all employees have an opportunity to earn them as part of this continual learning, and how we invest in our employees to allow them to keep their skills current. It’s been very effective. And for those of us in technology, I view myself as a lifelong learner, and the pace at which technology is changing, it’s important as the leader of tech for the company to set the example. Last year, I took three micro credentials and it has proven to be extremely valuable. For me, it’s how to get not just the tech team but the entire company on board with our digital transformation strategy. I think it starts with me to be knowledgeable in this space.”

Another learning curve, albeit much steeper, has been of particular relevance in the aftermath of the pandemic. Those working in tech have always worked with offshore partners that are, for the most part, remote. But now it’s expected that some onshore strategic partners or employees who are a part of an internal team are working in some hybrid model, which makes the level of complexity increase.

“At the kickoff of a project, you want to celebrate it, but how do you look for opportunities to bring the team together to build face-to-face relationships?” she says. “We provision a budget to enable that to happen. We’re heavily investing in our digital transformation strategy and we’ve invested more in technology this year than ever. As a result, we’re bringing in new team members who work in the industry and those who don’t. So this makes for an interesting challenge in how to get teams productive as fast as possible. Everything today is instant and we have this expectation that you’re productive from day one. That’s proven to not be the case, so we’ve developed a Fleet IQ program where employees have access to in-person videos with our business partners, and we pair employees with colleagues so they can ask questions in a safe environment, and learn how to navigate within their team and the company in a way that’s going to be beneficial to them as well.”

Charlton recently spoke to Maryfran Johnson, CEO of Maryfran Johnson Media and host of the IDG Tech(talk) podcast, about investing in people and collaboration in order to remain competitive and drive innovation.

Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On driving growth: When it comes to our growth strategy, we’re not afraid to think and act differently when faced with challenges and finding creative solutions. At the onset of the pandemic, we had financial sponsors telling us it was going to be impossible to raise capital. But despite that advice, we made the bold decision to launch a campaign that we were open for business because we felt we had a responsibility to help our clients keep their essential businesses moving. So we worked creatively to find money and market, and we were successful in raising $370 million of capital during that time. As a result, our business has continued to thrive. We’ve also made a commitment to lead in the electrification of commercial vehicles in the industry and we’ve invested $2.5 billion in existing reservations for more than 40,000 electric vehicles.

On digital transformation: We had our best year ever in 2021 amid all of the challenges with the pandemic—supply chain challenges, ship shortages—and we were able to deliver eight million packages per day throughout North America by vehicles managed by our fleet. And this really has put digital transformation at the core of our strategy. I think our team’s winning blend of innovation, service, and support has put us at the forefront of fleet tech, making it an attractive place for top tech talent to want to work—that coupled with the fact we’re working on several innovative offerings like Total Connect solution, which takes the embedded technology in a vehicle and harnesses the value of those data assets to drive results for our clients. Adopt EV is another one in our decision to lead in electrification. So these new technologies make it a very attractive place to work, coupled with our above market benefits.

On the future of work: We have a broad mix, not just in the technology function, but across the company. In terms of our model where we have moved to fully remote, you could be in a hybrid model, or you could be in the office on a daily basis. We have an approach in place that is going to influence what model is best suited for your role. But this hasn’t been easy as we have tried to figure out what the new normal needs to look like based on your role and how you would make all that come together to be successful to the organization. So we’ve worked hard to drive employee engagement across these various models and designed companywide events around those who are onsite and those who are remote to really emulate a very similar experience. And we also look for opportunities to have purposeful in-person events—for those who are remote—to really foster relationship development into deeper collaboration.

On employee engagement: We haven’t cracked the code that says, “Okay, here is the playbook on what employee engagement needs to look like.” So I often tell my teams you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable on this topic. You have to lean in and look for new ways to engage and help nurture that engagement. And it could look different depending on the type of initiative you’re working on. But CIOs need to focus on developing and fostering a great organizational culture based on collaboration, transparency, and innovation, and have a clear purpose that goes beyond profit. Because while profit is extremely important, employees want to feel that the work they do matters. The more they can feel that, the deeper their engagement will be, as well as their job satisfaction. Also, you want to make sure that your function—those of us who work in technology—is seen as a trusted business partner. That is a critical component to as well. Engagement is tied directly to job satisfaction and retention, so it’s important to look for those opportunities. It is a never-ending conversation.