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In 2016, when Mariela Perez and her husband visited the exhibits while attending a national fleet managers conference, very few equipment vendors knew who she was: the head of the fleet department at Duke Energy, one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S.

So, you can imagine the awkward surprise for many of those exhibitors.

“My husband also works at Duke, as the general manager of distribution in Florida,” Perez said. “And since many of the attendees bring their spouses, and I wasn’t wearing a Duke shirt, [the vendors] assumed my husband was the fleet manager.”

Sales reps would look past Perez and approach her husband: “What can we do to earn your business?”

“My husband would say, ‘Talk to her,’ pointing to me,” Perez said. “‘Why would we want to talk to your spouse?’ He’s like, ‘Well, because she’s the general manager of the Duke Energy fleet.’”

How did she take it?

“I don’t get offended like that; I had a blast with it. He was the only male spouse attendee. But people assumed I was just there as his spouse,” Perez quipped.

The Unconventional Path to Fleet
Perez doesn’t come from an automotive background. And she’s relatively new to the fleet world, having taken the helm at Duke’s fleet services division in November 2015. But she said that her wide range of experience in finance and operations, and the relationships she has developed across all the business units at the company, prepared her well for navigating the challenges and opportunities she would face in fleet.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Perez moved to the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida, area, starting her career in finance at the global consulting firm KPMG, where she worked for three years.

She got her first taste of the utility industry – on the telecommunications side – in 1994 at GTE Wireless, now Verizon, where she served in various finance roles for the next seven years.

In 2001, Perez joined Progress Energy, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida, which would become Duke Energy after the merger in 2012.

She started in the finance department, overseeing audits. In 2003, she moved to an operations role in real estate and leasing, where she would eventually serve as the project manager for the construction of the 16-story Progress Energy corporate headquarters (now Duke Energy’s Florida regional headquarters), completed in 2007, in downtown St. Petersburg.

In 2009, she became manager of business excellence in distribution, where she served as chief of staff for the senior vice president of distribution.

And then, from 2012 to 2015, Perez spearheaded Duke’s human performance program, building the initial team and creating the frameworks for conducting investigations and recommending corrective actions.

Today, she leads a fleet department with about 14,000 assets, 350 employees and seven regional directors who report to her.

With so many directions she could have taken in her career, what drew Perez to fleet services? What has been her experience being a woman in fleet? And what advice does she have for other women considering fleet management as a career?

UFP recently spoke with Perez to learn more about her story. Here is the edited version of our conversation.

UFP: You’ve talked about not coming from an automotive background, like many fleet managers. What was it about fleet services that attracted you to it?

Mariela Perez: I have all this experience in operations and finance. And in most positions, you really only focus on one of those areas at a time.

But when I was in finance, I missed operations; when I was in operations, I missed finance.

So, what I like most about fleet is that it brings those two worlds together. Very few positions in the company offer that type of opportunity.

How did the fleet opportunity open up for you?

The previous general manager of fleet services had left the company. And at the time, I had been in human performance for three years and felt like most of my work was done – the heavy lifting of getting the program off the ground. Now it was about maintaining the program.

So, I was really struggling to find a new challenge and role at the company that could combine my experiences.

There were two openings I considered: a position in IT systems and the general manager of fleet services.

I interviewed for both positions in one interview because I would be reporting to the same vice president.

As the vice president was trying to figure out where I would be a better fit, he asked me, “Which one would you prefer?”

I said, “Honestly, I would prefer fleet.”

He was like, “Why? You have a strong systems background. You would be able to walk right in and do a great job. It’s a role that’s much like what you have done recently [in human performance].”

I said, “Exactly. That’s why I don’t want it.”

That’s because I like a big challenge. I like learning something new. I felt like I could bring a different perspective to fleet services.

When you say “a different perspective to fleet services,” what does that mean?

Our team has very strong technical people with tremendous subject matter expertise on the equipment and the maintenance sides of the fleet, which is incredibly valuable.

Where I felt I could bring the most value is on the strategy, finance and all the other things from a business perspective as they pertain to the fleet.

And I understood fleet operations from a user perspective because I was a customer of fleet for many years.

So, understanding the customer’s perspective and having developed relationships with the various business units over the years have enabled you to become a liaison of sorts between the fleet and the company as a whole. Is that accurate?

It is. Talk to my directors, and they will tell you that’s the biggest value I’ve brought.

The fleet organization had certain needs that they were trying to get taken care of for about 10 years. And they hadn't been able to get them.

Where I’ve been able to help is with articulating our needs in a way that operations would make those investments in fleet – not just in the equipment but also in our people.

My value hasn’t been in improving the maintenance operations. We have experts on our team who do that very well. My value has been more in positioning the fleet department in the right way with the rest of the company – to get the resources we need to serve our customers in the best way possible.

What has been your experience as a woman in fleet management?

I think a little bit of the difficult part is that nobody really thinks that, as a woman, you can effectively manage a large fleet because, first, you’re a woman. And second, you did not grow through the ranks.

But I know from my perspective – and it’s a little different than what you will hear – being a woman in fleet has actually been an advantage.

In what ways?

I think that being a woman and coming from a different background than my directors enables me to be a complement to what they do. I have such respect for what they do. And they have respect for what I do because our perspectives and skills complement each other. We make each other better. And I recognize that my success is because of that difference.

What advice do you have for other women who are considering a career in fleet?

My biggest advice is that I would not think of yourself as any different because you are a woman. I never ever come to work thinking that I’m a woman in a man’s world. I’m just a person trying to make a difference and be successful.

The reality is that, yes, it’s a challenge when people assume that your husband is the fleet manager and I’m just his spouse. But I can’t do anything to change that. I can only control how I react to it.

And to me, I made the decision years ago that I would never let that bother me. I don’t let that stand in my way. I wanted to do this job. I went for it. It doesn’t matter that I am a woman.