Happy 75th Anniversary, Wheels!

Pic­tured: Zol­lie & Jim Frank

As George San­tayana, the famed poet, essay­ist, and philoso­pher once wrote “those who can­not remem­ber the past are con­demned to repeat it.” This apho­rism, how­ev­er sen­si­ble, hard­ly fits Wheels, Inc. The Des Plaines, Ill. com­pa­ny is cel­e­brat­ing its 75th anniver­sary and proud­ly recount­ing the company’s his­to­ry on its web­site.

San­tayana notwith­stand­ing, repeat­ing its his­to­ry of unde­ni­ably impres­sive firsts may be just what Wheels is plan­ning for its next 75 years.

Wheels invent­ed fleet leas­ing and fleet man­age­ment in 1939, when Zol­lie Frank, a young Chica­go Chrysler deal­er at the time, solved a prob­lem for Petro­lager Lab­o­ra­to­ries, a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny that oper­at­ed its own fleet. Petro­lager reim­bursed its sales peo­ple for mileage, and also helped them with a down pay­ment, which was as much as 1/3 of the car’s price in those days. If a sales per­son left for anoth­er com­pa­ny, Petro­lager was out the down pay­ment.

The solu­tion was a one-year, closed-end, fixed-cost lease includ­ing main­te­nance and insur­ance, offered by a new com­pa­ny found­ed for the pur­pose: Four Wheels, which even­tu­al­ly became Wheels. Petro­lager began the parade of cus­tomers by leas­ing 75 cars from Wheels. That fig­ure today, which includes cars and trucks, has mush­roomed to more than 300,000 cars that Wheels leas­es.

Dur­ing World War II, Wheels bought and leased used cars, because the OEMs and sup­pli­ers were involved in the war effort, and new cars were not sold from 1941 to 1945.

That inter­reg­num didn’t stop Wheels’ inno­v­a­tive dri­ve and its long list of firsts in the indus­try it found­ed:

1948:  The com­pa­ny builds a sys­tem that allowed dri­vers to buy replace­ment tires through local out­lets of nation­al tire com­pa­nies. This pre­cur­sor to Wheels’ main­te­nance net­work today com­pris­es 35,000 shops.

1954: Wheels begins cour­tesy deliv­ery.

1956: Cana­da is the first coun­try out­side the U.S. in which Wheels does busi­ness.

1958: Wheels becomes the first fleet man­age­ment com­pa­ny to offer truck engi­neer­ing.

1960: Wheels devel­ops the first ver­sion of com­put­er­ized vehi­cle order­ing.

1965: Wheels, inter­na­tion­al march con­tin­ues as it becomes the first fleet man­age­ment com­pa­ny to oper­ate in Puer­to Rico; in 1956, it had expand­ed to Cana­da. The inter­na­tion­al pace quick­ens dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the 90’s as Wheels adds Mex­i­co in 1998 and Europe in 1999. In 2009, Wheels formed a part­ner­ship with ALD, fur­ther expand­ing its glob­al pro­file.

Wheels, still a fam­i­ly owned busi­ness, has been led by CEO and Pres­i­dent Jim Frank, son of founder Zol­lie Frank, since 1974. Today, the com­pa­ny has near­ly 300,000 vehi­cles on the road in North Amer­i­ca and over 1 mil­lion in 41 coun­tries around the world.

This com­pi­la­tion con­sists of only a few if the high­lights of Wheels’ his­to­ry. More impor­tant, per­haps, is the company’s future.

And to get a glimpse of that future — and of the fleet leas­ing and man­age­ment indus­try, we spoke with Dan Frank, Pres­i­dent of Wheels Ser­vices, and grand­son of Zol­lie Frank.  He told us: “The evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­o­gy will con­tin­ue to be a huge change-dri­ver in our indus­try.  It will be incum­bent on fleet man­age­ment com­pa­nies to under­stand the impli­ca­tions of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and har­ness their capa­bil­i­ties to deliv­er thought­ful, inno­v­a­tive solu­tions for clients.

“Our clients con­tin­ue to take on addi­tion­al respon­si­bil­i­ties with­in their orga­ni­za­tions, and as vehi­cles become more con­nect­ed and inte­grat­ed with the jobs they are per­form­ing, the need for sim­ple, intu­itive tools will take on new lev­els of impor­tance.

“What is not going to change is Wheels’ com­mit­ment to our core respon­si­bil­i­ties of keep­ing dri­vers safe, pro­duc­tive and sat­is­fied while remain­ing cost effec­tive and help­ing our clients meet their cor­po­rate objec­tive. This foun­da­tion­al phi­los­o­phy has dri­ven our orga­ni­za­tion for the past 75 years, and will con­tin­ue into the future.”

~Mike Sheldrick, Senior Edi­tor, Fleet Man­age­ment Week­ly




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