September 20, 2022

Brendan P. Keegan, CEO of Merchants Fleet

Brendan P. Keegan serves as Chief Executive Officer [CEO] at Merchants Fleet and was recently named the world’s Most Innovative CEO by CEO World Awards®; Executive of the Year, silver winner by Best in Biz Awards; and a Stevie Awards® bronze winner by American Business Awards®. He has been involved with Merchants since 2009—as a client, board member, and strategic advisor. Brendan is focused on transforming the company’s business model and creating a new category within the fleet industry known as FleetTech. Brendan’s innovative leadership has fueled the company’s strategic direction and positioned Merchants as the fastest-growing fleet management company in North America.

Brendan is an award winning, 6-time President & CEO of companies ranging from 500 to over 10,000 employees located in nearly 150 countries in the tech & financial services sectors. He served as the Fortune 100’s youngest Chief Sales Officer for EDS, a $22-billion tech leader. Brendan has raised nearly $2.0B in capital and returned over $4.0B to investors. He has trained over 350,000 leaders, led nearly 50,000 employees, and driven sales of $100B+.

Previously, Brendan was named a Distinguished Fellow by Dartmouth College, Fast50 Executive by FastCompany, successful entrepreneur by Enterprise Bank, US Business Delegate to Africa, Best-of-the-Best CEOs by Incentive, 100 Fastest Growing Companies by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Business of the Year by NH Business Journal, Top 10 Coach of the Year by USA Football, and Volunteer of the Year & Youth Coach of the Year in NH.

Brendan received his Bachelor’s Degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an MBA from the George Washington University, and Executive Certificates from Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania & University of Chicago.

Julian: [00:00:00] Hey everyone. We're here on the behind company lands podcast today with Brendan Keegan. He is the CEO of merchant fleets. Merchant fleets is the fastest growing fleet management company in north America, providing flexible funding and service options for organizations that leverage vehicles to run their operations.

Brendan, thank you so much for joining the show. I'm really excited to go into your background, learn about your experience and learn about, you know, merchant fleets and the. You know, things you face day in, day out because you're not the typical guest as, as we talked about, pre-show, I'm super curious on, you know, what was your experience coming from a customer to then the CEO of merchant fleets and what led you behind that to, you know, being the position you are in today?

Brendan: Well, Hey, first of all, thanks for having me on today. I'm a big fan of yours and, and I learn a lot when I listen to your episode. But yeah, my, my experience, this is really unique. So going back to 2009, you know, I was running a technology company. We had about 10,000 cargo bands running around north America and I wound becoming a [00:01:00] client emergence fleet.

Yeah. So I got to know them for a couple years. Really got to understand the services. And my background's really more in technology, financial services. So after being the company's largest client for a number of years, they ask actually asked me, could I join the. Yeah. And be an advisor to the company, really talking about technology.

You know, I did that for a little bit. And here's one piece of advice. If you're in the boardroom and you make a lot of suggestions, eventually they're gonna say, why don't you do it? love that. And that's what that's, what really happened is, you know, I kept saying, you know, Hey, e-commerce has taken off home.

Delivery's taken off. Have you gone after a last mile? Have you moved upstream? Hey, or here are some things I've tried at my companies that have allowed us to grow, you know, faster than the market. And so that after being on the board for a couple years as the previous CEO was retiring you know, I wound up stepping in and that was 2018.

So I've been here four and a half years now. 

Julian: I love that. I love that. And, and speak to me a little bit, you know, one thing you mentioned, if, if you're the one making, you know, most of the decisions that they ask you, you know, why don't you do it, but [00:02:00] how do you, how, how did you view the market? Because you saw these things, these predictors to then, you know, give advice and now you're, you're leveraging that information to then make, you know, decisions to grow the company and invest in new, you know, I, I know whether it's features or in.

How do you see the market? How do you predict those things? What do you look at to get 

Brendan: that information? Yeah, so there's a term we use in the company called fixedness. So a lot of times when people have been in a particular industry or anything like that for a really long time. Yeah. They, they have fixedness, meaning this is how we do it.

This is how we do it here at merchants, or this is how our industry does it. And oftentimes that fixedness actually works against. Yeah. Now some of that fixedness is great because that means you're an expert, but sometimes when you're like, no, we, we, we wouldn't do that. We haven't done that. We haven't tried it.

It doesn't work well. It didn't work five years ago. The world changed over the last five years. Yeah. So what, what I saw is I saw in industry where [00:03:00] there were about 10 companies in north America merchants was eighth, the eighth largest. And a lot of the companies were okay with two to 5% market growth.

And, you know, I was scratching my head saying, you know, that's fine, but you know, why can't you grow faster? And, but the mindset, first of all was, well, that's just the industry. And I'm like, well, okay, well, you don't have to accept that. That's the industry. Yeah. You know, and at the time it was a family owned business by four brothers that were really good entrepreneurs and they had set up a number of companies internally.

but what wound up happening is they never came together as one value proposition to the client. Yeah. And, and I'll tell you how I found out I'm getting onboarded as a board member. And I used to be the company's largest client, and they're all telling me what they do. And I said to one person, I would've been your largest client of your division.

Had I known about you and they go, yeah, but you were a client of the other division. Oh. And I kind of scratched my head and said like, you're making your customer. Actually understand your organization. So we [00:04:00] collapsed seven companies that run independently into one company and now offer all those services to our clients and we've been able to dramatically grow company share.

So it's a really unique opportunity where being a customer mm-hmm you know, it set me up for success, but I, but doing, I'll tell you this. When I first started, I had some people very gently say to me, Vernon, are you a technology guy? What do you know about. Sure. And, you know, I was like, Hey, you know, you guys know about fleet.

I know more about technology, but I'm gonna try to bring new ideas and new innovation to the company. And in 2018 we were 500 million. So, you know, pretty decent sized company. Yeah. And as we're starting to head into Q4 of 22, so four and a half years later, we're 2.5 billion. That's good. So, you know quite a bit of growth and what, here's the fascinating part about that?

Everything we do today, The company had all these capabilities five years ago, so we haven't gone and acquired anything. We haven't gone and built new capabilities. We have taken our existing capabilities and targeted different [00:05:00] markets. Mm-hmm and we are approaching it different ways. How would 

Julian: you describe the consolidation of all those different businesses under merchant fleet?

At that that time, it seems like, you know, there's a lot of features. There's a lot of you know, different value propositions. Right. But now then you consolidate it into one and then offer it to different segments almost like you did before, but with a different approach, what was that consolidation process like and how have you then used that approach to the different customers and.

Brendan: So what, what I'd say is, is when I first came in, that was part of my thesis in, in coming to the company was doing that. I would tell you about 40% of the people were fans of it. They said, this makes a lot of sense. You know, about another 40% were, Hey, let's wait, see. And 20% are like, this guy doesn't know anything about fleet why'd we hire.

You know, it's, it's a completely bad, bad hire. Yeah. And, and they were right. I, I did know about fleet, but I was viewing it from a customer standpoint saying, you know, I want one view into the company. I want you guys to come to me. Tell me what I need, if you're the expert. So [00:06:00] now what I'd say is it really took us 12 to 18 months for us to get.

Cause when you bring two organizations together and, and by the way, in, in the process, no, no one lost any jobs or anything like that. But when you bring 'em together yeah. And let's say you're running the sales team in one department, I'm running it in another and we're supposed to now cross sell.

Here's my general response. Well, you go first, you, you bring me to your clients and then you're like, no, you bring me to your clients. Yeah. So, I mean, we experience, we experience things you see in kindergarten classes, , you know, where, you know, you, you know, you're in, you're in the sandbox and you're wrestling a little bit.

And I'd say it took a full 12 to 18 months for, for everybody to really embrace it. Yeah. And once we started winning some accounts that we hadn't been able to win once we had clients saying, wow, this is really unique. Thank you for this. All of a sudden people started coming on coming board again, you had 40% of people front that came right on board, cuz they said, this makes sense.

And then we just kept building up the momentum and building up the momentum. And then once you see that it's a winning strategy. [00:07:00] Everyone wants to be part of being a winner. 

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. So fascinating. You, you use the word thesis as, when you were transitioning to this company. Is the thesis you brought in specific to merchant fleet or is the thesis something that you've developed over time as someone who's grown and skilled company?

Brendan: Well, I, I would say yes to, to, to both of those mm-hmm so, you know, one of my general thesis as, as, as being a CEO is it's our job to explain who we are to the client. So they don't have to understand it. Yeah. You know, there's too many times like, Hey, I'll, I'll get some unsolicited email today for somebody trying to sell me something and I'll read through it.

And at the end I'll be like, I don't know what they do. Yeah. I, I don't know what they do. You know, you can improve my productivity. You can drop dollars to my bottom line. Okay, great. I don't know what you do. Yeah. And, and so the first thesis. You've gotta be able to articulate your value and you've gotta consolidate your value.

So your client doesn't have to go to four different places to understand what you do so that I, I brought to every company. What I would say [00:08:00] is at this company, it's had more success than other companies I've had because where this was founder led entrepreneurial led family led mm-hmm its level of entrepreneurialism was very high and hence everything was kind of kept.

And in some cases, the actual businesses would compete with each other. Yeah. And, you know, and, and that it can be healthy when you're trying to grow early, but later it becomes unhealthy when someone says, well, I don't wanna share my client with them cuz you know, I, I wanna grow faster than them. And, and you know, now it's all about just remember guys, it it's one P and L it it's one number for the year, but have to change incentives along the way as.

Julian: Yeah, no, that that's, that's, that's so fascinating. And, and changing the incentives, changing the structure of how the company functions to overall have this cohesive experience with, with everyone on the team. One, one thing that that's with my mind, but, but just came back in regards to the traction.

You mentioned you, you were a 500 million company now you're at 2.5 ending, ending the quarter here. So that's, you know, extremely. [00:09:00] What's been a part of that success. And where do you see the company in terms of its growth and its customer base? Where do you see it growing and expanding to? 

Brendan: Yeah. So when, when I got here, we had four different ways we made money mm-hmm and, and I call those economic engines.

So we had four economic engines that, you know, we're firing mm-hmm today, you know, four and a half years later, we have 12 economic engines. Mm-hmm so the one thing I, I always do is I say, how do you make. And by the way, you'd be surprised how some companies don't really understand how they make money.

you know, they, they say, oh, we, we, we do X. And you're like, well, you, you do X, but you also provide service. Y and you've got a third way you make money. So we had four ways, we made money and, and then we said, well, couldn't we start? So, so you, do you, you have a business. Does short term leases of passenger bands?

Yes. Could we do short term leases of truck rentals, pickups? We think there's a big market for. We could, but like we've never done that before. It's like, okay, you've never done that before. That's fine. Yeah. You know, do we know how to [00:10:00] buy the vehicles? Do we know how to rent them? Do we know how to collect them?

Do we have existing clients that have that need mm-hmm yes. So give you, for instance, four years later, we have 5,000 on, on short term lease now, and, and that didn't exist a couple years back. So, but is that really, it's a new economic engine for us. We knew how to do that. You know, that's exactly what we do as a company.

We're just targeting a different market. So we now have 12 economic engines. So we have 12 different ways we're making money. Mm-hmm . And in any given time, you're gonna have a few that are growing really well. Some that are growing and usually you're gonna have one or two that are struggling. Mm-hmm when you have four economic engines and one or two are struggling, you're probably not growing overall as a company when you've got 12.

And by the way, eight of them are. You all, but can't help but grow. Right? Because you know, all of a sudden your fifth, engine's growing your sixth engine growing and you're like, well, we didn't even have those engines last year. So it's, it's almost automatic growth. Yeah. And so that's what we've [00:11:00] done. But at building these eight engines out, they're variations of what the company already did.

Mm-hmm mm-hmm but it's just took, so we, we, we would do seasonal rentals of passenger vans. Great. Yeah. We used to do it for summer camps. Right? Tote kids around all north America. Yeah. That's wonderful. That's a relatively small market. We said if we can rent the van for four months and make money and make it disappear, why don't we go over last?

Why don't we go attack last mile and home delivery and eCommerce mm-hmm . Yeah, because there's hundreds of thousands of those. So in 2018, we did no last mile. We, we didn't. Right today, we have 22,000 vehicles doing home deliveries last mile and eCommerce across some of the biggest companies in the world.

But that's gone from zero to 22,000, but where did we learn? How to do that? We learned it by doing it for summer camp for 30 years. yeah. So if you think of a what's the [00:12:00] difference we went from targeting a very small market mm-hmm to targeting a very big market. That's essentially the only difference.

Yeah. But. Tremendous success. So, you know, it's, how do you look at your capabilities as a company and how do you focus those capabilities? The biggest opportunities. Right. Right. And I think that's what we've done. Well, 

Julian: yeah, no, the, it it's so fascinating to understand the fleet space because it's, it seems like it's expanded from, you know, renting out vehicles to consumers, to, you know, companies who have fleets of electric vehicles that they rent out in, in a different capacity.

You know, whether it's moving or whether it's day to day, grocery shopping or vacation trips, where has been the most exciting growth that you've. Within the fleet space. And, and and where do you see it continuing to grow kind of long 

Brendan: term? Yeah. So I I'll give you a perspective. So when you, when you're driving down the road later today, or, or whoever are, are you listeners and you're driving down the road right now, you know that one out of five vehicles on [00:13:00] the road is a fleet vehicle.

So now, you know, the obvious ones are the FedExes, the UPS's yeah. The Amazons, the postal service, like those are your biggest, most recognizable one. But then, you know, when you get off the highway and you turn into your neighborhood and you drive by your neighbor's house and you see, you know, Joe's painting, that's a fleet vehicle, you know, when you see, you know, Charlie's HVAC you know, when you see a florist delivering flowers, when you see a small franchise delivering.

Those are all fleet vehicles. So think of it. One out of five vehicles on the road is a fleet vehicle. So as consumers and you and I are consumers, we rely on these vehicles to, you know, get us from our, our, our meals to, to, you know, getting us our electricity. Mm-hmm you know, so if you think of your electricity, if you think of your internet, you know, you've got all those companies out there, you know, like building that and those, those are fleet vehicles.

So fleet pays such. An important role in, in all us all living [00:14:00] our daily lives, you know, the transportation logistics industry, I think, unless you're in it, you just take it for granted. Yeah. It's like electricity, you turn the light switch on. It's supposed to be there. Yeah. You, you order something from an Amazon it's supposed to be there the next day or God forbid in two days.

Yeah. You know, you, you, you know, you You know, you, you need something fixed in your house and somebody comes out and they've got all the tools and they've got all the parts, you know, those are, we just kind of take that for granted, but that's a, a really large industry. And again, it accounts for one out of five vehicles on the road today.

Julian: Incredible. What are the, some of the biggest risks that merchant fleet faces 

Brendan: today? Until recently our, our biggest risk is we were growing so fast. And we were, we were family owned. Mm-hmm , you know, by, by a smaller family, like for instance we we're celebrating our 60th year this year, so we've been a business for 60 years.

We're second generation owned. And in our 55th year, we were 500 million. And in our 60th year, we're two and a half. So because we haven't been growing kind of in a straight line for 60 years and it's kind [00:15:00] of popped up over the last five. Yeah. You know, we kind of out outgrew being a family owned business.

Yeah. And, you know, and we, we needed funding. We needed growth capital mm-hmm . We, we, we need to move, you know, further into north America. So we actually made a conscious decision just about 18 months ago, that it was probably time to find the next ownership group for the company and the, the family back let's see, 15 years ago brought in what they called professional management.

Mm-hmm they brought in I'm the I'm the third outside CEO non-family member mm-hmm well, it was time for us to say, okay, we've got professional management. It's now time for us to have professional owner. Yeah. And, and just about 45 days ago, we announced publicly that we've sold merchants to Bain capital.

Yeah. You know, the sixth largest private equity firm in the world into the Abu Dhabi investment authority sovereign wealth fund that represents Abu Dhabi and. All their citizens. So that's gonna allow us to not worry about, can we fund the next 600 million? Can we fund the [00:16:00] next billion?

Can we fund the next 2 billion? So that's been our, our, our biggest challenge. And, and I say internally what a first world challenge. Yeah. What a great challenge to have is we're growing so fast. Can the company keep. Yeah. And you know, I'll, I'll, I'll take those challenges, you know, over, Hey, we're shrinking and we, aren't sure we're gonna have enough money to, to run payroll for employees.

You know, we're in the opposite camp of, Hey, you know, we're growing so fast. How are we gonna keep up? You know, how are we gonna be able to, from an ownership standpoint, continue to fund the company. Yeah. 

Julian: What, what makes your job.

Brendan: You know, I, I don't, I don't think it's hard. Yeah. I really don't. I, I think, I think as a CEO, if you can focus on a few things and, and I mean, focus on those things and that's, that's kind of like a recipe for success, you know, you know, if, if you're trying to run a marathon, there's a formula, you know, run it run so many miles leading up to it and then you'll be able to run a marathon.

I, I think it's very similar to being a CEO. You know, the things I focus on is first, you know, You know, do we have a vision [00:17:00] for the company and we do. And are we honoring that vision? So if we say we're gonna be the fastest, most unique electric leader in the, in our space, what are we doing to honor that, you know, are we putting reservations in for electric vehicles?

Mm-hmm are we taking an evangelistic position? The next is values. You know, we have five core values as a company. Are we honoring those values? Are we hiring to those values? Are we terminating to those values? Are we promoting to those values or are they just things that are on a wall that look really pretty?

And we're very, very values focused as a company. You know, the, the next are around people and culture. You know, do you have the right people? Yeah. If you've got the right people, you can do anything. And, and I really believe that if you've got a vision, you've got the values and you have the right people, you can do anything.

And then is it a culture that those people enjoy and wanna work in? You know, we've, we've heard about the great resignation. Yeah. And by the way, I can't stand whenever I hear about that. Yeah. When I actually wrote an article, I think for Newsweek on it, I said, let's stop talking about the great reservation.

Why don't we talk about the great re. [00:18:00] Yeah. So, you know, here at merchants, we don't talk about reservation. We talk about what are we doing? We're putting all of our energy into how do we retain our talk people and our retention this year. Our actual people that have left is down from last year, which is down from the year before.

Right? Cause it, it, if you take care of your people, if you build a great culture, if they understand the vision of the company and they feel like we're building something. Like who doesn't wanna be a part of that? Yeah, so, so, you know, you know what, what's toughest in my job. What makes it a tough job?

If I can focus on that, the rest takes care of itself. I love that. I 

Julian: love that. Well, and I know we're wrapping up here, so I do wanna always get some homework for me and my audience. What, what books or people have influenced you the most that we can all, maybe get some, get some knowledge from. 

Brendan: Yeah. So, so the, the single book that's probably changed my mindset the most is a book called the tipping point by Malcolm Gladwell.

Great. It, it talks about, you know, how do you cross the chasm and how do you get the tipping point? And, and I'm always looking [00:19:00] for how do we go from something being a novelty to being, you know, bigger. Like when we went after last mile, how do we go from nothing to 22,000? So, you know, and by the way, Malcolm's also written a number of other books and they're all fantastic.

And he, he's also a great storyteller, so they're easy reads. Yeah. Another one of my favorite books is by Jonah Berger called contagious contagious. And if you're in a service business and you're trying to get people to, you know, be attracted to your brand, his book, contagious talks about word of mouth.

Yeah. You know, like for instance, we're, we're never gonna have a super bowl ad. We're never gonna have a, the merchants blimp running around. We're never gonna do big billboards. We're counting on kind of word of mouth where people talking about people hearing about us and he wrote a book contagious that was, was really great.

So those would be two books just right off the top that I'd say, you know, can really help you, you know, get past the tipping point in your company. Yeah. And every company has a tipping point. Sure. And unfortunately, a lot of companies don't break. Yeah. And then the other is contagious. Like how do you make, how do you get your [00:20:00] brand to be where people really want to associate with your brand?


Julian: Well, Brandon, thank you so much. I've learned so much from this episode and we could have talked for hours and hours on end. So last little plug, where can we spread the word, the word of mouth for merchant lead? Where can we get involved? Plug in your social channels, your LinkedIns, your your Twitters.

Where can we, 

Brendan: where can we. Yeah. So we're on merchants, on, on, on our, our website and Instagram we're life at merchants. What I'd say is, if, if you're also out there looking for a job we're constantly hiring. Yeah. So if you're, if, if you like working, you know, at a company where culture and people are really important, jump on our website and, and apply we got a lot of positions out there.

And, and, you know, just continue to keep America. 

Julian: I love that. Brendan, thank you so much for joining the show. Really excited to share this with the audience and I hope to talk to you sometime soon. 

Brendan: All right. Hey, thanks for doing a great job and thanks for keeping it positive out there. Of course.

Julian: Take care.

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