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