Brendan Keegan and his team are investing ahead of the curve to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles

“An academic and empirical analysis of every recession on record found that firms that increased advertising and innovation investment during recessions grow in market share and in profits not just for the short term, but for the long run as well,” according to Professor David Reibstein of the Wharton School of Business. That’s common sense and good business. But investing at the bottom is easier said than done. 90% of firms did not or were not able to invest in the most recent Pandemic induced recession according to the research. Not Brendan Keegan, the CEO of Merchants Fleet, which is now the fastest growing fleet management company in North America.
Merchants Fleet is a 60-year-old company that has dramatically accelerated its revenue growth by transforming the traditional fleet management industry as it moves from combustion to electric vehicles.
Like many business sectors, the fleet management industry faced a series of headwinds as customers in their traditional markets in construction, hospitality, car rentals and education were distressed by the pandemic. Trucks and cars were not available due to supply chain and chip shortages. Capital dried up as the industry contracted by 11%.

Where his competitors and customers saw contraction, Keegan and his team saw opportunity. In 2020, the short-term picture was not promising. “The industry had no product (vehicles) available, banks were pulling back, and hundreds of clients were in distress. But at the same time, Keegan and his team saw unprecedented opportunity. “Our industry is going to see more change as fleets become electrified and over time more autonomous and fleet managers have to deal with an entirely new set of equipment, infrastructure, data, automation and carbon footprint issues,” says Keegan. “Fleet managers have a huge opportunity to improve driver safety, reduce the cost of ownership, and shrink their carbon footprint by moving to electric technologies. For example, transportation represents 29% of all emissions.”

Keegan is a rare CEO who understands the importance of focusing on and funding investments to sustain long term growth. “Growth isn’t like a light switch,” says Keegan. “You can’t just turn it on and off. You have to have a clear and consistent long-term goal for growth that the entire company can understand. And commit to it.”

brendan keegan the ceo of merchants fleet

In the five years since Brendan took the reigns as CEO, the company has expanded revenue, commercial assets as much as (more) than in the first 56 years of its existence. By 2021, Keegan and his team were already four years into an ambitious seven-year plan to more than double assets and revenues when the pandemic hit. And they were ahead of schedule, having met their goal to grow assets from $500 million to $2.5 billion and add grow revenues over substantially in only three years. But now Keegan and his team saw an opportunity to dramatically expand the size of the market they are pursuing and take a good share of it. So they decided to double down and invest even more in long term growth, especially in last mile.

“We saw a perfect storm, an industry ripe for disruption and a leadership team willing to disrupt it,” says Keegan. “So, we put both feet down on the gas pedal.”

Putting both feet on the gas pedal means working with an expanded group of banking and equity partners like Bain Capital Credit and BNP Paribas to collectively access over $2 billion of capacity to lease vehicles and equipment for clients and invest in continued growth. They reallocated people and capital resources to “last mile” logistics and home delivery customers who were trying to support the sharp rise in e-commerce during the pandemic. The business grew by 38% during the pandemic at a time when the overall industry was contracting.

“Even in bad times there is always funding out there for good companies,” says Keegan. “You must be willing to think and act differently if you want to capitalize on opportunity and change.”

The automotive industry is going through massive transformation as EV and driverless capabilities come into the mainstream and net-zero-carbon future becomes the north star,” says Keegan. “Our industry has been in a 50-year rut where nothing has fundamentally changed about the fleets our customers operate and they ways they manage them. We’re going to see more change in the next five to 10 years than we’ve seen in the last 50.”  That sentiment is shared by industry leaders like Mary Barra, the CEO of GM which plans to launch 30 EV(Electric Vehicle) models by 2025.

Keegan has positioned Merchants Fleet to be first in line to deploy those models in electric fleets. Literally. Keegan had his team reach out to Ford, GM, and all of the top vehicle OEMs to lock down supply of the next generation of electric vehicles. The company has committed to purchase a huge chunk of all new EV models being introduced by all the major automotive OEMs. GM identified Merchants Fleet as one of a handful of companies that are leading the charge to deploy their new EV trucks, pickups and panel vans in EV fleets in their most recent earnings call. The others were Amazon, Walmart, and Verizon.

A lot of businesses grow by taking big risks throwing money and resources at achieving hyper growth. Keegan and his team understand the difference between growth at all costs and intelligent growth. “You don’t really need to do a lot of market research to see the future of fleet management and transportation,” says Keegan. “All you have to do is look at how transportation in Europe has evolved. By any measure, demand for EV fleets will dramatically outstrip supply by the end of the decade.”

In all, Keegan has added 80% more people and four times more assets to exploit the opportunity., But capital and investment are only part of the growth equation. Putting that investment work harder and leveraging people through productivity and automation is  One thing Keegan understands it that innovation, teamwork, and technology are critical to achieving scalable and consistent growth.  Merchants Fleet operates in a capital-intensive industry where assets and people are gating items to growth.    

One of the first things he did as CEO was to enlist the help of a world class Chief Technology and Digital Officer – Jeanine Charlton to lead the digital transformation of Merchants go to market and operations. Charlton has been at the forefront of building culture of innovation and a world class data and technology infrastructure to support scalable growth. “We’ve had to build out a modern data and analytics infrastructure to support our growth and leverage our teams, and deliver a superior client experience,” says Charlton.. “That involved giving our people a 360-degree view of the client, visibility into the end-to-end client cycle – from vehicle onboarding, to monitoring driver safety, to asset utilization and the total cost of ownership.”

One of the first things he did as CEO was to enlist the help of a world class Chief Technology and Digital Officer – Jeanine Charlton to lead the digital transformation of Merchants go to market and operations. Charlton has been at the forefront of building culture of innovation and a world class data and technology infrastructure to support scalable growth. “We’ve had to build out a modern data and analytics infrastructure to support our growth and leverage our teams, and deliver a superior client experience,” says Charlton.. “That involved giving our people a 360-degree view of the client, visibility into the end-to-end client cycle – from vehicle onboarding, to monitoring driver safety, to asset utilization and the total cost of ownership.”

Jeanine L Charleton, the Chief Digital Officer at Merchants Fleet

The company has also pushed a culture of innovation deep into the ranks to ensure every member of the team can contribute to scalable and profitable growth. “Rather than establish an innovation group or department, we created a process for training, incentivizing, and empowering every employee to innovate” says Charlton. “We now have 45 innovation coaches working with hundreds of team members across the entire company to identify ways they can apply digital technologies and analytics to improve cycle times, cost of ownership, driver safety, and the client experience.” Innovations are coming from every employee, from finding ways to attract more talent in a tight job market to shrinking the onboarding process for clients by over 80%. “In our push to become more data-driven we have aggregated our client, product usage and operating data into one platform and provided our sales consultants, operations teams, and clients the ability to mine that data using Power BI,” says Charlton, who was named one of the 50 most powerful women in technology. “Our sales consultants work directly with our clients to improve the utilization of assets, reduce downtime, and increase the flexibility they have to deploy equipment most profitably and productively. For example, our sales consultants were able to reduce the vehicle onboarding process from 28 to 6 days and dramatically increase asset utilization by digitizing the condition assessment process and eliminating onsite inspection and a ton of human effort.”

The company’s focus on innovation and digital transformation pays benefits that goes beyond costs and growth. It helps them build, empower, and retain a world class team. “By automating mundane tasks and giving employees tools that can multiply their impact and performance, we are creating a more attractive and empowering place to work,” says Charlton. “That’s very important to achieving growth in today’s markets because those factors get at the root cause of the great resignation.”
The analytics foundation and infrastructure Charlton is building is going to be more important over the next five to ten years as fleet managers and municipalities move towards managing driverless networks. “While many EV vehicles have what Keegan calls “incremental autonomy” – technology that automate driving, improve driver safety, and reduce accidents – which are in use today, the infrastructure and insights needed to manage an autonomous driverless network is still in development,” says Charlton. “As we gain experience managing the world’s largest EV fleets, we are in a great position to define the operations required to move to the next phase of the market – full driverless networks are five to ten years out.”


Brendan P. Keegan and Jeanine L. Charlton the CEO and Chief Digital Officer at Merchants Fleet about the digital transformation of the commercial model which has transformed Merchants Fleet into the fastest growing fleet management company in North America.

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