From EVs and safety technology to data integration, there have never been more ways to optimize your fleet’s operations. But it takes specialized expertise—and a constant finger on the pulse—to transform these opportunities into a lower total cost of ownership (TCO). That’s where Randy Gafford, Onward’s Director of Operations and DOT Compliance, comes in. We recently sat down with Randy to discuss the latest trends in data-driven fleet management, his encyclopedic knowledge of DOT regulations and how he combines proven expertise with high-touch service to keep Onward clients ahead of the curve.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Randy. Let’s start off by discussing your previous experience. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the last few decades?
Randy Gafford: I’ll start with the compliance side. I was first introduced to DOT regulations when I was 18 years old; that’s when I went to truck driving school in Amarillo. During that training, I completed a three-month course that dove deep into DOT regulations. I learned to read them and I learned to understand them. I started driving a city transit bus when I was 19 and saw all these regulations in action. Two years later, I joined the army. During my time in the army, I left DOT compliance behind. But as soon as I got out, I went to work for a subsidiary of Greyhound and was reintroduced to the regulations. We had a safety department that was focused on drivers knowing the regulations inside and out. So I’ve been exposed to and working with DOT regulations for my entire adult life.
It wasn’t until I went to work for an energy company that I began to learn how DOT regulations impact non-transportation companies. I relearned a lot of what I knew through that lens. Without getting too deep into the weeds, it’s important to understand that anything over 10,000 pounds crossing state lines is subject to DOT regulations. We had eight business units, each with its own set of challenges and specific fleet trucks. It took a lot of time to create a program that would keep us compliant. During that time frame, I learned a tremendous amount about DOT regulations for non-transportation companies. Ever since, there’s been a running joke around here: If you ask me about a specific regulation, I can tell you exactly where it is in the book.
How has your previous experience informed your approach to operations?
RG: My experience has taught me that data integrity is a must, from uploading a new asset to day-to-day management all the way through disposal or transfer. I’ve seen how quickly inaccurate data can cause significant problems. Incorrect license plate numbers, two characters of the VIN transposed, inaccurate fuel card transaction capture; these data points may seem small, but they’re critical in managing the asset.
Data integrity also impacts the TCO, which is a figure that might seem elusive for many fleets. While we have all the data points to calculate the true TCO, something can happen to the vehicle in the field that never makes it into the management system. Take, for example, a driver buying and installing wiper blades on an expense account. Oftentimes that cost is left out of the maintenance spend. Those are small items, but they can add up to a significant amount over the life of the vehicle. Onward knows this well, and we make it a priority to help clients maintain accurate data. We also help our clients use a single platform for their fleet management. I’ve seen organizations implement multiple systems, each requiring different naming or numbering conventions, and that can wreak havoc on in-house management reporting.
I also have extensive experience in establishing and maintaining driver safety programs, and I hope to help clients adopt meaningful solutions in this area. We’re already working on programs to address the integration of autonomous technology: the proper use of it, interacting with driverless vehicles on the road and how to keep distractions at a minimum.
So to answer your original question, I’ve learned many lessons over the decades. On the DOT side, they’ve helped me become an expert at helping non-transportation sectors stay compliant. With operations, I’ve witnessed the power of a comprehensive data strategy. But whether you’re talking about compliance or operations, knowledge alone isn’t enough. You’ve got to be customer-focused, and I’m excited to bring that to Onward.
So it’s not just about your experience, but also the customer experience. How do these dynamics come together in your role at Onward?
RG: I’ve been in a fleet department since 2007 and have learned a tremendous amount about fleet management. I’ve had the opportunity to work with three different fleet management companies. I know what they do well and where they can improve. A customer focus is key. Onward is quick and responsive. We know that taking 48 to 72 hours to respond to an email isn’t good customer service. If you call us, we’re going to answer and do what it takes to find a solution.
Personal relationships also help address the issues I mentioned a few minutes ago. Data integrity has got to be a priority for any modern fleet. Our fleet management system has the tools to capture TCO, and our personal relationship with clients ensures the right data makes it into the right field. So it’s the combination of expertise, tools and customer service.
I’ve also done a tremendous amount of training in my career. Through that experience, I’ve learned how to get in front of a client, speak at their level, and make it easy to understand concepts that, from the outside, seem really complicated. Part of it is really knowing your stuff. But another part is making it fun. That’s where Onward is setting itself apart from other DOT compliance consultants. I’ve seen so many companies come in and hand clients a copy of the regulation word for word. That doesn’t do much good, and it definitely doesn’t add value. I’ve developed a way of communicating these requirements so that they’re easy to understand and, believe it or not, pretty interesting!
I think what excites me most is being able to bring Onward a set of knowledge and skills not commonly found in the fleet management space. I have a unique understanding of how DOT compliance affects companies where transportation is not their main focus. They may just haul their own equipment or trailers, but they’re still subject to a lot of the same regulations as over-the-road truck companies. I make it easy to understand for management and for drivers. I can get in front of the group, explain when and why they’re regulated, and give them the steps to stay in good standing. I can also communicate the finer details of a data-driven operations strategy in a way that makes the value clear to our customers. I’m excited to bring that to Onward’s clients.
You just brought up a great point about DOT compliance for non-transportation companies. What are some of the biggest misconceptions here?
RG: Actually, many of them don’t know they’re regulated until they get stopped on the road. When they get stopped, they’ll get a Driver Vehicle Examination Report from the inspector, and it’ll contain a laundry list of violations. And it throws them for a loop because they didn’t realize they had to do any of this. They may be a company that’s been around 10, 15, 20 years, and all of a sudden they have to shift in a different mode. That can be a daunting task for any organization. It takes a tremendous amount of work to simply get set up on paper—getting a USDOT number, getting driver and maintenance files in order, making the right filings with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). We’re hoping we can ease that burden for companies that may not know they’re regulated.
When we’re talking with new clients, DOT questions always seem to come up. There are a lot of misconceptions, and fleets are looking for a partner to help them navigate what’s required and when; someone to tell them, “No, you don’t have to comply with this part, but you do need to comply with that part” and then handle the whole process. Whereas trucking companies usually have DOT compliance expertise in-house, non-transportation companies often need someone to lean on and guide them through what could otherwise be a very complicated, time-consuming process.
How is the fleet operations landscape evolving, and what does this mean for fleet managers?
RG: The landscape of vehicles, in general, is changing rapidly. EVs and autonomous technology are entering the mainstream. Many fleets will eventually reach a point where they have a mixed fleet; some will have the latest technologies while older units don’t. That might not seem like a major issue, but it will impact how operators manage their fleets. Just like fleets will have mixed vehicles, public roads will have them, too. We’ll need to find new ways to train drivers so that they can interact safely in this new environment.
Safety features are also quickly evolving. Lane departure warnings, blind spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control are all becoming much more effective safety tools for fleets. And then you have dashcam technology, which uses artificial intelligence to detect unsafe behaviors like smoking and not wearing a seatbelt. Within five years, the majority of fleet vehicles will have both forward- and driver-facing cameras. The safety returns they’re providing are almost unheard of. But to fully recognize those safety gains, you have to get buy-in from the drivers.
Many drivers don’t like the idea of cameras on them while they’re driving. But when you think about it, many employees are already subject to cameras—bank tellers, for example—and drivers are going to have to adapt. One best practice is to write a clear policy that tells your drivers what you intend to do with the data. Let them know that you’re not watching them live; you’re only pulling footage for a specific reason outlined in the policy. Being proactive can assuage some of these concerns and help you make the most safety gains from your technology.
Technology and data are transforming fleet operations. How has big data impacted DOT compliance?
RG: That’s a really good question. For years, the FMCSA has had a mechanism to measure a company’s safety. It underwent a major change about 10-12 years ago; it’s now called the Safety Measurement System (SMS). Any time a company undergoes a roadside inspection, the results go into the company’s SMS. Different violations go into different buckets; there are seven total. Every month, the DOT does a data run that updates the DOT number with the most recent inspection results. An inspection stays on your record and impacts your safety score for two years. Just like a violation can affect safety, a clean inspection is worth its weight in gold. Some companies offer driver incentives for Level I inspections with no violations because they’re just that important.
DOT also tracks DOT-reportable accidents on the SMS. Any time a carrier is involved in an accident that results in a vehicle being towed, an injury or a fatality, it factors into the company’s score. Up until recently, it didn’t matter who was at fault—even though companies had been crying foul about that for years. DOT now has an accident review process where you can submit all the information on the accident. If it’s determined to be non-preventable on the carrier’s part, it stays as such on the carrier’s SMS.
You’re instrumental in helping Onward clients optimize their operations and stay DOT compliant. But you’re also a leader on our growing team. How would you describe your leadership style?
RG: I like the concept of being a servant leader. What I try to bring to my team is the support they need to be successful in their role. One aspect is always communicating and finding ways to help them succeed. But another aspect is my attitude. I try to bring the same attitude day in and day out, and I don’t let my mood affect my interactions. Throughout my career, I’ve seen time and again how the best leaders are consistent.
Now for something a little more fun. What do you like to do in your spare time? What’s life like outside of work?
RG: I drove charter and tour buses for a lot of years. I’ve traveled the country and have seen many things. I still love to travel with my wife, and we take a big trip every four years for our anniversary. But I also really like being a homebody these days.