By: Chad Fay, Jonathan Ghent

People Power: The Driving Force Behind One of the Nation’s Top Vegetation Management Contractors

Power companies and their partners, including vegetation management contractors, rely on a constellation of commercial vehicles and equipment to help deliver electricity safely and reliably to millions of consumers.

Among them are the nearly ubiquitous "bucket trucks" that lift workers nearly 100 feet off the ground to install and repair power lines and trim and remove trees.

As one of the nation's leading vegetation management contractors, Lewis has an arsenal of more than 6,500 assets including an array of bucket trucks, backyard lifts, light duty pickup trucks, chippers, and other off-road and on-road equipment and vehicles. Last year alone the Lewis fleet traveled more than 30 million miles, which is equivalent to circling the globe a staggering 1,200 times. The critical and lifesaving work of keeping the power on for more than half the U.S. population requires a fleet of vehicles and equipment that are ready for deployment every minute of every day.

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When I think of fleet, I imagine the people who are operating that equipment...That’s what brings the assets to life.

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With such a mighty and valuable arsenal, you might think Chad Fay, Lewis' VP of Fleet and Procurement, is singularly focused on the company’s eight-figure investment in equipment. But according to Fay, the Lewis assets he oversees are not his top priority. It’s the people in the seats that matter most.

“When most people think about a fleet, they think of a piece of equipment,” said Fay. “When I think of fleet, I imagine the people who are operating that equipment. In my mind, I'm visualizing the operator standing next to those units, the team member who ensures that the equipment is operated in a safe manner, that it's well maintained, that it's used productively and its life is extended. And then teaching others how to manage and care for our equipment. That’s what brings the assets to life. That’s fleet stewardship.”

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The Road to Fleet Stewardship

Chad Fay, VP of Fleet and Procurement discusses how if you take care of the people, they will take care of the fleet.

According to Merriam-Webster, stewardship is defined as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care.” From Fay’s perspective, it can be summed up in a single word that has profound meaning to every Lewis employee – “ownership.” That’s because Lewis is 100% employee-owned through its Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). So, asking employees to treat the company’s equipment as if it’s their own is easy – because it is their own.

But there’s more to building a culture of stewardship than having thousands of employee owners. Support from leadership is critical, and Fay’s unwavering commitment to investing in people is key to the paradigm shift that Lewis frontline workers have witnessed since he joined the company in 2021.

Under Fay’s leadership, the vegetation management contractor is transcending the traditional equipment-centric mindset, paving the way for a transformation that recognizes and embraces the human factors of fleet stewardship. "Everything we do is a result of the work that the team puts in," Fay explained. Guided by this team-oriented ethos, Fay is creating an environment where everyone feels valued and empowered. "If you take care of the people, they will take care of the fleet. In the end, the business – including customers – will benefit from it.”

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Walking the Talk

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If you take care of the people, they will take care of the fleet.

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Fay’s dedication to the growth and development of employees extends far beyond mere words. He “walks the talk” in a multitude of ways, including by establishing an annual award to recognize the division manager who takes the best care of Lewis’ vehicles and equipment. Fay evaluates each division manager’s performance in four areas to select the recipient of the Fleet Stewardship Award. The award winner must meet or exceed periodic maintenance requirements, repair vehicles as quickly as possible to maximize usage, and complete inspections on time, remaining compliant with Department of Transportation (DOT) requirements. To be considered for the award, the division manager also needs to be an evangelist, communicating regularly with employees about what fleet stewardship means and why it’s important.

Lewis Fleet Stewardship Award Winner

Fleet Stewardship Award Winner, Eric Newman (center), with Chad Fay (left) and Kathy Eastman. 

In November 2022, Lewis recognized its first Fleet Stewardship Award winner with a trophy and celebrated the milestone by sharing a social media post with its thousands of followers. It said, “When the CEO-Elect describes your truck as ‘so clean you could eat off of it,’ you know you have a Fleet Steward. Congratulations to our very first recipient of the Fleet Stewardship Award, Eric Newman. Your commitment to our fleet sets a high bar, thank you for taking such good care of your equipment and your people.’"

"What inspired me to start the Fleet Stewardship Award was the definition of stewardship, which is the careful management of something that's been entrusted to one's care, and this fits well with being a caretaker for the high-value equipment in our business," Fay explained. “This award program is one way to show the incredible dedication and pride that Lewis employees and leaders exhibit when embracing fleet stewardship.”

Lewis 2023 NAFA 100 Best Fleets v3

Fay’s efforts to instill the values of fleet stewardship within the ranks of Lewis’ 4,000-plus craftworkers has paid off. In April of 2023, Lewis was recognized by NAFA Fleet Management Association as a Top Commercial Fleet, placing sixth among top performing fleets in the Americas. Upon receiving the award, Fay said, “To be recognized as one of the best fleets in the Americas is a great honor. Fleet operations for a leading vegetation management contractor isn’t just about trucks and equipment, it’s about the people who operate, manage, and maintain our fleet. Our success is a direct result of their outstanding work.”

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Continuing to Raise the Bar

The idea that people bring fleet stewardship to life is deeply rooted in Fay’s belief in continuous improvement. "To be a leader, as an individual and as a company, we need to relentlessly pursue success.” Fay said.

Among the many ways Fay and Lewis continue to raise the bar is by adopting the Smith System to promote fleet safety, reduce costs and maintain compliance. The Smith System is the global leader in crash-avoidance driver safety instruction, training tens of thousands of drivers annually including drivers from more than half of the Fortune 500 fleets. Earning a Smith System certification is the gold standard for CDL driver training. “When we adopted the Smith System in 2022, our goal was to train all of our nearly 2,700 drivers” recalled Fay. “So far, we have trained more than 2,000 and 80 of them have gone the extra mile and completed a 40-hour program to become certified trainers. It’s a great example of Lewis investing in people to make their jobs safer and more fulfilling.”

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Expanding Stewardship from Vegetation Management Contractor to Home and Back

Reducing accidents, minimizing wear and tear, extending the life of vehicles and equipment – all metrics that fleet executives have on their radar. But Fay is just as focused on the benefits that don’t fit neatly in the rows and columns of a spreadsheet. “We talk a lot about human factors in the context of safety and performance, but the human factor I associate with fleet stewardship is that it spills over into people’s lives away from work,” said Fay. “People exhibit a kind of stewardship in the way they take care of the vehicles they own and the passengers they carry – their family and friends. So, what we’re emphasizing in areas like equipment maintenance and safe driving should extend into their everyday lives. And when they think of themselves as owners of our vehicles too, it comes back full circle when they return to work. In this way, fleet stewardship forms a virtuous circle.”

The journey from fleet management to fleet stewardship can be a long and difficult road. Some organizations never make it. In reality, it’s a journey that never ends. For Lewis, it’s all about people – the driving force behind the Lewis fleet.

"Companies in our space don't stay in business for decades like we have without a strong commitment to safety, quality, continuous improvement, and doing the right thing,” Fay concluded. “Fleet stewardship is an extension of these values. The people at Lewis bring it to life.”

To be a leader, as an individual and as a company, we need to relentlessly pursue success.