Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (left) and Blue Bird President and CEO Phil Horlock are pictured here at an event to hand over the keys to 20 Propane-Powered Vision buses to Hall County (Ga.) Schools.
In 2010, Blue Bird officials made what they called a “difficult decision”: shuttering the company’s north Georgia facility, located in LaFayette.
The plant had been in operation since 1988 and employed about 350 people. Blue Bird’s Type C school bus body assembly, which had been the north Georgia plant’s duty, was relocated to the Fort Valley headquarters, which is in central Georgia.
The move came amid a tough U.S. economic climate and after several years of declining school bus sales in the overall market. Blue Bird officials said at the time that moving the north Georgia facility’s operations to Fort Valley would centralize all production, technical staff and services and would bolster efficiency.
“Unfortunately, we had to close a plant, but it was a great opportunity for us to become more efficient,” Horlock said during the recent interview.
Blue Bird also made big investments in manufacturing technology and revised the layout of the production line at the main Fort Valley facility to further increase capacity and efficiency. Additionally, company officials said that Blue Bird’s 2009 joint venture with Micro Bird provided greater production capacity in Fort Valley and a “first-class” Type A bus for Blue Bird customers.
Also in Fort Valley is an additional plant where Blue Bird fabricates the manufacturing materials for its buses: seat frames, steps, sheet metal panels, bumpers, etc. Blue Bird acquired that plant in 2008.
Horlock said that the fabrication operation is “a real strength for us. It’s more competitive for us to do it here [in Fort Valley]. We’re able to control quality.”
Drawing on experience
With a workforce of about 1,500 people, Blue Bird is a major employer in the region. Staff members hail from more than 40 of Georgia’s 159 counties. Since 2010, Blue Bird has added 200 full-time jobs.
Beyond the sheer quantity, a noteworthy aspect of the workforce is its longevity. According to Horlock, the average tenure of Blue Bird employees is almost 20 years. He said this experience is critical, considering the complexity of the buses they’re building.
Having the whole company — executive, finance, engineering, HR, marketing, manufacturing, etc. — centralized in Fort Valley is advantageous in many ways, Horlock noted.
“We’re all here under one roof. We’re a very close team,” he said. “We meet with every customer that comes through this plant. … If a customer has a great idea, we’ll implement it next week.”
On the product improvement front, last year Blue Bird introduced a new bus window that is designed to be easier for children to operate and to prevent the intrusion of dust. The company also redesigned its All American buses for model year 2014 with multiple new features and improvements.
“Our engineering group is constantly looking at new ways to do things,” Horlock said, adding, “Our customers value the fact that we are the only manufacturer that builds a purpose-built school bus. ... As a result, we offer many exclusive and unique features that our customers want and value.”