Counting on the ‘Czar’

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We want to strive to be as efficient as we can be, because we’re preparing for the future, not just for profit.” – Robert Barron, senior vice president, general counsel, and “Fuel Efficiency Czar” for trucking conglomerate NFI

It’s no surprise the title Fuel fficiency Czar caught my eye – that’s exactly what trucking conglomerate NFI wants it to do, especially within its own ranks.

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“The whole reason we’re using the term ‘Czar’ is to get our people to pay attention to what our sustainability team is doing,” Robert Barron (at right), NFI's senior vice president, general counsel, and “Fuel Efficiency Czar," told me recently.

“It’s a title designed to get a higher profile within the company,” he explained. “Like every fleet out there, we’re involved in numerous projects designed to improve efficiency, cut costs, etc. Using the word ‘Czar,’ though, tells our folks that this is something they need to focus on over and above everything else that we’re doing.”

Yet it’s also a term that works both ways – giving Barron and the “sustainability” team he leads a higher profile, certainly, but also an obligation to get results. In this case, those results are all primarily focused on reducing fuel consumption in every way possible for NFI’s fleet of 10,000 tractors and trailers, encompassing both over-the-road and dedicated operations.

And it’s not just about picking off the low hanging fruit, either, though that’s what Barron and his team focused on for much of last year: reducing truck idling time, lowering speed limits, reducing engine horsepower, and installing battery-powered auxiliary power units (APUs).

Those efforts boosted fleet-wide fuel economy by over 3.5% year-over-year, from 2008 to 2009, but those gains are now in the past – and finding another 3% gain is going to require a lot of hard, focused work.

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“Industry thought processes always used to indicate that bigger was better: bigger trucks, bigger engines, and longer distances,” Barron said. “Now we are trending towards different truck designs which are more fuel efficient; they travel shorter distances to more localized distribution points, cutting down on emissions and fuel.”

It means improving truck aerodynamics, reducing truck and trailer, plus identifying and correcting improper driving habits. Take for example NFI’s Maximize Miles program, created by the carrier’s sustainability team – a program that uses letters, posters, driver-manager messages, newsletters and stickers placed on tractor dashboards to communicate the importance of four simple steps to maximize miles:

• Shifting gears at the right RPM for maximum power and efficiency

• Starting trucks in the most fuel-efficient gear

• Eliminating unnecessary idling

• Checking tire pressure before every trip

It sounds simple, sure, but sustaining these behaviors over the long-term is the real trick – and that’s why Barron is tagged with the “Czar” title in the first place, so employees will recognize the importance and value of sustaining such programs over time.

“We’ve adopted an ‘interdisciplinary’ approach towards researching, testing and implementing ideas and techniques aimed at balancing reductions in emissions and fuel consumption with cost management, as well as employees and customer satisfaction,” Barron added. “Of course we want to keep our costs down when fuel prices rise, but even when prices fall, we continue to aggressively focus on fuel efficiency. We strive to be as efficient as we can be, because we’re preparing for the future, not just for profit.”

Yet, being a history major, it’s been something of long, strange trip for me to watch this ancient imperial title of “Tsar” and “Czar” gaining such a big foothold in the political and business lexicon within the U.S. today.

Both are Slavic words derived from the Latin term “Caesar,” which means “Emperor” and “Supreme Ruler.” Both titles first originated in Bulgaria around 913, then were adopted by the Serbians and Russians – with Russia’s Czars, of course, figuring most prominently in history: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and the tragic Nicholas II, who along with his family was murdered during the Communist Revolution in 1916.

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Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha of Bulgaria (at right), also known as Simeon II, is the last person known to bear the Slavonic title Tsar – holding that title from 1943 to 1946 until that country’s monarchy was overthrown.

[Yet his story has a much happier ending than that of Russia’s Nicholas II. Only nine years old when “deposed,” Simeon was later elected Prime Minister of Bulgaria in July 2001, serving in that post until July 2005 – one of the last living heads of state from the World War II-era and one of the few monarchs in history to have become the head of government through democratic elections.]

The term “Czar” started being employed in the U.S. back during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (U.S. President from 1933 to 1945) as an informal reference to high-level officials overseeing particular policies deemed of great importance to the president and his advisors.

During FDR’s presidency, roughly 12 positions were so described. It came back into vogue to describe officials in the Nixon and Ford administrations, largely for special action office of drug abuse prevention. Today, 31 administration positions bear the “Czar” nickname in some fashion.

Now this word – a term that defines absolute, autocratic rule; a term that’s derived from the Latin word for Roman Emperors no less! – is being applied to specific positions within the trucking business community

In NFI’s case, Barron’s “empire,” if you will (for what’s a Czar without an empire, I ask you?) is his interdepartmental "sustainability” team -- a group tasked with brainstorming ways NFI can remain a top “eco-friendly” trucking, distribution and logistics company.

Barron and his team are thus responsible for creating, developing and executing strategies aimed at improving NFI’s overall miles per gallon results through employee and driver work habits, technology, corporate policy decisions and other innovations. [No one ever said a Czar’s job was easy!]

It’s a huge task, but one Sid Brown, NFI’s CEO, believes is necessary to stay on top of the trucking business now and in the future. Privately held by the Brown family since its inception in 1932, NFI not only operates the aforementioned 10,000 unit fleet but some 18 million square feet of contract and public warehouse space as it continues to try and be a “one-stop” resource for integrated supply chain solutions.

Only one question remains, though – what title should Sid adopt in order to outrank the fuel efficiency “emperor” in NFI’s ranks?

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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