Call of duty: Managing fleets in conflict zones

Automotive Management Services exec Andrew Robertson discusses how the Dubai-based company supports UN and military fleets in Africa and the Middle East

“I’ve been around trucks since I was four years old,” says Andrew Robertson, the affable CEO of Dubai-headquartered Automotive Management Services (AMS), when asked how his career in fleet management came about.

Fondly recollecting his childhood in Scotland, Robertson says his grandfather owned a trucking business, ensuring his early exposure to the field. “I left Scotland when I was 21 and worked in various countries around the world, always in the fleet and equipment sector and transport management.”

Robertson’s career has given him a considerable amount of experience working with militaries, particularly with American and British forces. This track record is no doubt invaluable to his current role heading AMS, a Danish company specialising in providing fleet management solutions for vehicles and equipment in emerging markets, mainly Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

AMS, which has its head office in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers, counts among its clients the US government, the US army and the United Nations. The company provides a range of fleet management and training services to military, government and UN fleets in developing countries, playing a crucial role in their operations.

Among its main markets is Afghanistan, where it caters to the Afghan Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Interior and the US government. “We currently maintain in excess of 55,000 vehicles for those three customers. We also work with the United Nations and NATO, so we have quite a diverse fleet,” Robertson says in an interview in his office.

Africa is also an important territory for AMS: the company is active in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Uganda. While these are its main markets in the continent, field support representatives are deployed all over, the chief executive says. Many of AMS’s African clients are from the mining sector, and the firm also provides training and technical support to some military forces too, such as the Kenyan army.

Meanwhile in Iraq, AMS works with the UN and US military forces, in addition to providing ground support at airfields. The primary challenge of operating in Iraq is a large degree of bureaucracy, Robertson says, noting that AMS has managed to steer clear of Daesh-controlled territories and operates primarily in airfields and ports.

As part of its work supporting UN missions in various locations, the company typically provides driver and operator training services, covering everything from preventive maintenance to servicing and defensive driver training. “A lot of the drivers in those locations have been driving for 30 years, but they don’t understand how to efficiently look after and operate a vehicle. Fuel economy is something that’s not even in their vocabulary.”

Given its experience operating in troubled zones, AMS has amassed expertise in supporting armoured vehicle fleets and catering to their unique needs – most notably premium uptime and service, Robertson says.

“If you’ve got an armoured personnel carrier that’s carrying soldiers in a war-torn environment, they can’t afford for that vehicle to break down because it’s not been serviced, or because there’s a transmission fault. The same thing could go for a fire-fighting vehicle in an airfield. It breaks down one time, it’s one time too many,” he emphasises.

“That’s really where our service and our quality comes in. We’ll never be the cheapest provider, but we will offer the best value and reliability. And often in the places we operate, those two things don’t come together.”

Elaborating, he notes that the only options for armoured fleets are local workshops which offer more reactive maintenance, or the much costlier option, in-house maintenance for the military fleets. “We’re in the middle, and the best value. We run pretty much 95% local employees.”

Local recruitment is a major element of AMS’ operations – the company recruits people in the markets it works in and trains them internally. People with the necessary technical skills are fairly easy to come by, Robertson says. “What they don’t have is the fundamentals. They’ve never had the theoretical part.”

Thus, the company typically puts its staff on a four-year training programme, during which they are given both hands-on and theoretical training.

When asked about the distinctive needs of armoured fleets, Robertson notes that training needs to be adapted for them, especially since these are normal vehicles modified for armoured applications. For instance, a Land Cruiser which has been modified into an armoured vehicle corners very differently. “It won’t corner like an ordinary SUV. The brake systems are often upgraded, so your stopping distances are greatly increased.”

Hence it’s important to understand how to handle such vehicles, and also how the vehicles react in different conditions, such as in rain or on ice, he explains.

Working in tough markets

Operating in markets that most companies are hesitant to enter brings its fair share of difficulties.

Cultural integration is the biggest challenge, and being culturally sensitive is a large part of getting the job done. “If you’re going to a colonel or a senior manager who’s been in the industry for over 20 years, to get the point across that he’s not been doing something properly or he needs to get more in touch with modern technology, it’s very sensitive in any culture. There’s a way of delivering it.”

The challenge therefore is to find personnel with the ideal combination of technical skills and cultural sensitivity. “It’s all about having the right people in the right job for the right reason. We have a really good team, and that’s something we’re very proud of.”

Another issue is the logistics of sending staff to various locations, which involves procuring visas in a timely manner.

“We may have a client that’s got a piece of equipment down or they need somebody to conduct training, and it can’t take two or three months to get visas.” This is solved by having a capable HR and business administration team in place, he says.

In countries affected by war or conflict, security is naturally a major consideration. So how does AMS ensure the safety of its employees and field support representatives? The firm relies on external consultants and deals with security advisory companies in the UAE for advice, Robertson explains. AMS also uses its local partner network and consults local partners on the security situation, where employees should stay and what mode of transport is best – armoured with a security detail or low-key with a local driver, for instance.

Employees typically wear local clothing and work to blend in, he explains. “Nine times out of ten that is the approach we take, cultural integration. We respect the culture of the country, we respect the clients, which is something that makes us very different from most.”

Maintaining strong relations with local partners is obviously a must to working in difficult markets, Robertson points out. “It’s not through a contract that our partners are loyal to us and deliver. They’re our friends, it’s not just business as far as they’re concerned.”

“They’re often very proud for us to come and share our knowledge and capabilities with them, but we’re also there to learn from them. We want to understand their country, how they do things, and why they operate the way they do. It’s a two-way street.”

New opportunities

As violence and terrorism destabilises much of MENA, market conditions are invariably getting tougher. This is an opportunity for AMS, with increased demand for its services in the region. “This is because large fleet operators are looking to extend the lifespan of their fleets, so they need to focus more on the maintenance and preventive maintenance side. So in many ways, challenging market conditions are positive for us.”

In Syria, for instance, he expects demand from embassies and the UN for AMS’ services when the situation improves.

Dealership operations are another area where the company is looking to grow. AMS currently represents Scania in Liberia and Volvo Construction Equipment in Kazakhstan. Central Asia in particular has a lot of potential for dealership opportunities, Robertson says.

“It’s a very harsh and challenging market [with] extreme cold, extreme distances and landlocked countries. That is the kind of market that AMS excels in. We see a lot of potential and a lot of growth, with both the Volvo CE brand and the Kazakh and Central Asian market.”

For now, however, AMS does not plan to expand out of its core region of the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. “It’s a very diverse and culturally mixed region, and that’s what we like. That’s who we are as a company as well.”

When asked about plans for the coming year, Robertson lists growing market share for Volvo CE in Kazakhstan as one of the main goals. In Afghanistan, the company plans to continue lending support to the US government and various Afghan ministries. “[In] Africa, we’re looking to grow market share for Scania in Liberia and continue supporting the UN in South Sudan, Uganda and Somalia.”

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