How difficult is it to compete against the larger bus manufacturers like Blue Bird, IC Corporation and Thomas Built Buses?
Where the larger manufacturers have their obvious strengths, I believe smaller manufacturers have the advantage of being much more agile and responsive to the market. U.S. Bus released a new lightweight unit this past summer, and we are already prototyping a low-profile version for preproduction in the first quarter.
We’re also focused on the Type A market. This is our livelihood. We live Type A 24/7, whereas the larger manufacturers have to contend with big bus issues. In addition, U.S. Bus is located in the heart of the Type A market.
Do you see growth or shrinkage in overall school bus sales for the 2007-08 school year? How about for the Type A market?
I would imagine the big bus manufacturers have some pretty healthy pre-emission backlogs to build out early this year. Hopefully, everyone is going to start looking at their Type A needs that were put to the side in favor of large pre-emission savings on big buses. So I believe the market might be a little slow for us in the first quarter, but I see a strong return from that point on.
Do you see greater opportunity in the Head Start market?
It’s all about the funding, and it was a little depressing at last year’s annual Head Start conference. We need Washington to get behind the Head Start programs. I have no problem blowing their horn for them; they are “America’s best investment,” and we need our representatives to recognize it and get them what they need to get the job done.
What’s the biggest challenge facing school bus OEMs?
As we touched on before, shrinking margins and rising costs. Changing specifications require us to constantly re-engineer; material costs are rising all the time; there is more than sufficient capacity in the industry and incredible unwillingness in the market to accept the fact that prices have to go up.
How important is it for bus OEMs to understand the needs of the end-users, and how is that accomplished at U.S. Bus?
It is the most important aspect of a successful organization. Coming from the automotive world, I received the classic Toyota quality training, and the most-stressed module is the “Voice of the Customer.”
At U.S. Bus, we have reorganized the company to free up the right individuals and formed a much more comprehensive customer service department, focusing them on channeling feedback from our customers to the appropriate departments. Our product changes have been driven by our dealers, and it doesn’t hurt to be owned by leaders in the school transportation industry — John Corr of The Trans Group and the Marksohn family of WE Transport, who I might add are not a shy group.
What are end-users looking for in a school bus these days?
I know I’m repeating myself, but this is U.S. Bus’ mantra: We have to deliver a safe, reliable product at the lowest achievable cost. There isn’t a lot of money to be found anywhere in the food chain, from the end-user up, and with the job of transporting children, there is no room to compromise. We have to be diligent in constantly looking for cost savings, re-engineering where necessary and becoming as efficient as possible to stay healthy, keep our dealers healthy and provide a product to the market that’s going to allow our end-users to do the job they need to do.