Last April, U.S. Bus Corp. named John Manzi as its new president, replacing Irv Kushner, who retired about a month later.
Although a relative newcomer to the school bus industry, Manzi is no stranger to buses. For the previous 15 years, he was involved with the medium-duty commercial bus market. Previous to his assignment with U.S. Bus, he was general manager of Starcraft Bus and Mobility, a division of Forest River Inc. Prior to that, he was vice president of operations for Warrick Industries and Goshen Coach/McCoy Miller and general manager for Trailmobile Corp.
Manzi got his start in the transportation industry 20 years ago building postal vehicles for Grumman Corp. He later moved to walk-in trucks and over-the-road trailers.
With several months of experience now at U.S. Bus, Manzi has a well-formed perspective of the school bus industry and recently answered some questions posed by SBF Editor Steve Hirano.
SBF: How much of your experience in the commercial bus market has been useful in transitioning to the school bus industry?
JOHN MANZI: The distribution and dealer networks normally carry both yellow and commercial lines, so I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of dealers for a good many years.
With the legislation and subsequent market growth of the MFSAB [multifunction school activity bus], I have also been able to bring our product to commercial dealers who now need a compliant vehicle.
Specialty vehicle manufacturing, in general, is a very low-tech, people-driven business. To be successful, we have to recruit and train a customer-focused organization. U.S. Bus has been working at and will continue to work at becoming the very best customer service organization in the industry.
As far as the product is concerned, whether you are building a commercial bus, a school bus or an ambulance, they are all capital equipment that is being purchased to do a job. The end-user is looking for a vehicle that is going to be safe and reliable at the lowest achievable cost.
What is your impression of the school bus industry so far?
I really and truly am enjoying it. The industry is very well organized, there is great representation from all segments and the people themselves really seem to enjoy what they’re doing. I believe transporting the incredibly precious commodity we’re all responsible for brings the industry together and keeps us focused.
How does the school bus market compare to the medium-duty commercial bus market in terms of competition for business?
Sadly, this is one place where the industries are very similar. Competition is incredibly tough on the commercial side, and from my short experience in the yellow bus market, it doesn’t look like anyone is leaving a lot of room for margins over here either.
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.