Professionalism, planning, prioritization and people: Sharon D. Subadan

Editor's Note: This month's Member Profile features Sharon D. Subadan, Fleet Management Division Chief for the Department of Public Works and Transportation, Montgomery County, Maryland, and member of APWA's Fleet Services Committee.

Tell us about your background: I came to Montgomery County from Miami-Dade County in Florida. I was there for ten years in various capacities. I was with Miami-Dade Transit Agency for seven years, and then with the Fleet Management Division for three years as the Fleet Manager. In 2000, I saw an advertisement for this position in the APWA Reporter. I applied for it and the rest, as they say, is history. I accepted the position of Division Chief and started here in October of 2000.

As the Fleet Manager in Miami-Dade County I was responsible for a fleet of over 8,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment divided into a Light Equipment section and a Heavy Equipment section. The Heavy Equipment section performed maintenance for public works equipment, solid waste equipment, fire apparatus, and miscellaneous other pieces of construction equipment. The light equipment included police cruisers, administrative sedans, pickup trucks, and other vehicles less than 10,000 GVWR.

During my seven years in the Miami-Dade Transit Agency I held an administrative position prior to moving into bus maintenance operations. I was not your typical technical person—in bus maintenance, it was very much "out-of-the-box" for me. I have never turned a wrench in my life, and I'm not your traditional fleet manager who may have come up through the ranks. I am very much a manager, an administrator, a people manager, and a resources manager. I learned a lot about maintenance during my time in bus maintenance and found that I really loved the environment. I learned the technical aspects of fleet management and have good technical aptitude. I very much believe in applying the common sense test to things. I have developed my own working philosophy which I have essentially carried with me everywhere I have managed.

Prior to Miami-Dade County I was in the private sector—I worked for Eastern Airlines for five years and American Express for three years prior to that.

Education: I went back to school as an adult. I received my Associates Degree in Business from Miami-Dade Community College and my Bachelor of Science in Human Resources Management from Trinity International University. I was on the National Dean's List in 1996 and received honor awards and graduated Summa Cum Laude from both schools. I have been able to successfully apply the principles learned to real-life work situations.

Favorite Book: I read anything that John Grisham writes. His novels on attorneys are very different from what I do every day, but I love everything he writes. As far as business-related reading material, my all-time favorite book is Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, a fairly short book dealing with change. I consider myself to be a change agent. I think I bring a whole new perspective to fleet and to public works. I believe if you don't understand change and how to manage change, you are going to die as a manager. It has been a very revealing book for me and I have shared it with all my staff here.

We implement change often and try to anticipate the need for it and embrace change. We are a division that is very innovative and do things differently for a reason. I compare the running of Fleet Management here in Montgomery County to a business. We are not driven by making a profit, but we aim to treat our customers as if they were at a professional private business with their vehicle. We are very customer service oriented. Our goal is to ensure that each department has the required vehicle or equipment needed to successfully accomplish their respective mission.

Hobbies/Interests: Hobbies and interests? I don't have time for either one (laughs). I'm kidding. I have young children and I am very involved with them in their sports and with their schools. I love to travel, and am an avid advocate for new experiences. I also enjoy music.

Role Model: Colin Powell is certainly someone I respect, and I think that he's doing a very difficult job very well. He's someone I have looked up to as a leader for the past ten years, and he has a leadership primer that I have read. I certainly think of him as a real role model.

Tell us more about Montgomery County's Fleet Management Division: We maintain a mixed fleet of approximately 3,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment. We have close to 2,000 light vehicles consisting of police cruisers, administrative vehicles, sedans, pickup trucks, and vans. We have a transit fleet of 240 full-size buses and growing. The population in Montgomery County is close to 900,000 people. It is a Washington, D.C. suburb with major traffic issues. When citizens were surveyed last year, their number-one concern was traffic congestion. The County Executive, Doug Duncan, has initiated the "Go Montgomery!" program which is a balanced plan to reduce congestion in the region over the next ten years and beyond. Transportation planning and increased transit service is a big part of the program, and consequently Fleet is growing to support the program.

In addition, we have 700 pieces of heavy vehicles and equipment, ranging from one-ton to tandem dump trucks, front-end loaders to excavators, and everything in between. It is a large and very diverse heavy equipment fleet.

Montgomery County is classified by the EPA as a non-attainment area for air quality which places a high level of importance on environmental issues. We have implemented the use of alternative fuels. We have the largest Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) bus fleet in the State of Maryland, and later this year we will be constructing a CNG fast-fill fuel station capable of fueling our current and future fleet of CNG buses. By this time next year we will have 80 CNG buses; some of those are additions to the current fleet, and others will replace older diesel buses.

In addition to CNG, last year during National Public Works Week we commissioned the opening of an ethanol fuel site, the first one in Montgomery County. At this point we have about 70 light vehicles that are ethanol capable, and are buying more this year. We have also made the ethanol fuel supply available to the public—if they have a flexible fuel vehicle that is ethanol capable, they can fuel and pay with a credit card.

We are very pro-alternative fuels in our fleet, and are among the region's leaders in alternative fuels. In addition to CNG and ethanol, we are also testing hybrid light vehicles. We are very pleased with the performance results and expect to buy more hybrids in the future.

In the Division we have 147 budgeted positions, a budget of $37 million. We operate an internal service fund, a large portion of which is a replacement fund. Replacement funds are accumulated over the useful life of the vehicles/equipment in order to be fiscally able to replace the units at the end of their useful life. Managing a replacement fund has many challenges, but it is certainly a well-laid plan for future, timely replacement of equipment. When I arrived here in 2000, there was a backlog of vehicles past due for replacement. We have worked diligently to reduce that backlog, and I have received support from the County Executive and Council in this effort. Timely replacement of vehicles is a great advantage resulting in lower maintenance costs. It also results in more efficient, reliable equipment, greater user satisfaction, and increased productivity as a result of less downtime.

In terms of the culture of our organization, we have developed what we call a "Team Fleet" concept, where every member of the organization is deemed to be valuable and important and members are encouraged to contribute. I arrived here and introduced my four-part philosophy, the first of which is professionalism—it is very important that we project a professional image. Oftentimes, even within the field of public works, there isn't a clear understanding of what fleet does. In the back of people's minds they may think, "All those shade tree mechanics just turn wrenches." That is not what fleet management is all about. It is very important that we are professional, that we treat our customers well, that we do things the right way, that we follow procedures and we do this while remaining very competitive with the private sector.

Planning is also a big part of my philosophy. We try to be proactive and anticipate our customer needs by planning ahead rather than being reactive. Without a planning process, and without knowing where we are going, we'll never be able to get there. So we begin with planning well and in advance. An example of that is the reduction of the replacement backlog. We sat down two years ago and developed a six-year plan: how to reduce the backlog and move forward without adding to the backlog. We have implemented the plan with success so far. We still have a backlog, but we are working hard to continue to implement the plan that was put in place.

Prioritization—ultimately, it is our mission to make sure that each department has the vehicles or pieces of equipment that they need to get their job done. With every government and public works organization, there is a structure and a certain amount of bureaucracy that we have to work within. But I never lose sight of why I'm here—to make sure that public works and everybody else who uses a piece of equipment has what they need to get their job done. Quite honestly, without Fleet public works doesn't work very well. If we work well it helps other departments and divisions to work well. So we know what our mission is and what our goal is, and we never lose sight of that.

Last but not least are people. It is very important to me that people are treated well within my division—that they want to be here, that they want to be a part of the team, that they are treated with respect, that their opinions are valued, and that they know that they are contributing to the success of the division. We are fostering a culture called "Team Fleet" where we reward people for doing things that advance the team effort. I have found that we work best as a team. We came up with a Team Fleet logo and printed and embroidered it on various items. Those items are presented to recognize people who have demonstrated exceptional teamwork, gone "out-of-the-box," saw that there was a need and did something to enhance the overall effort of the team. We have Team Fleet jerseys and Team Fleet baseball caps etc. which are presented at staff meetings and employee appreciation events. The tokens are not big or expensive items, but I have found that it means a lot to people to be recognized for contributing effectively to the team.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? I became a member of APWA about six years ago. It is obviously a very diverse organization. I have learned a lot being a part of APWA, and it certainly has exposed me to areas of public works that I probably would not have been involved in to such a large extent had I not been involved with APWA. It helps us as fleet managers see the bigger picture, and it gives us the audience to introduce what we do in our professional environment within fleet to the rest of APWA. So it's sort of a symbiosis—there's an opportunity for us to learn and for others to learn from us.

Being part of the Fleet Services Committee has been a wonderful experience. I'm very big on education, and I think it's important for others to know what it is that we do. Oftentimes, I think, people instinctively know what the road department, solid waste and facilities do but have difficulty understanding what fleet does. Through APWA we have been able to provide great educational opportunities. We have also provided good education for our own fleet members. I know there are others in fleet organizations seeking to become members of APWA and will benefit from the experience.

One of the things that I'm most proud of working with the committee concerns the publications that we have produced. We are actually working toward a series of publications on fleet, and they have been very successful. One of them that I helped author, the Vehicle Replacement Guide, has been a bestseller. I think it demonstrates the need that is out there for people to better understand how fleet organizations work and are seeking answers to questions about what is done best in fleet organizations. It has been a great opportunity for me to participate in that education process.

Lastly, I believe in educating our elected officials. We have invited newly elected council members to visit our site and for us to give them a briefing. They tour our facility and meet our staff—it has been a good experience. We have received great feedback from them indicating that they have learned a lot by being here. Since they are the ones who ultimately make decisions regarding our financial future and direction of the County, it is important for us to take the time to educate. Through the Fleet Services Committee we encourage other fleet managers to be proactive and not to wait until somebody asks the question, "Well, what is it that you do?" We try to give them tools to take advantage of opportunities to enhance the education process.