In February, Dan Peters was appointed to lead Collins Bus Corp., the Hutchinson, Kan.-based Type A school bus manufacturer.
Peters replaced Collins veteran Kent Tyler, who last year was named president and CEO of first responder apparatus manufacturer E-ONE Inc., which like Collins is an Allied Specialty Vehicles (ASV) company.
In announcing Peter’s appointment, company officials pointed to his 30 years of experience in developing strong customer relationships, team building and leading business growth.
“Dan’s proven record of leading businesses through consistent sales growth and, perhaps more importantly, his focus on developing organizations and maintaining strong customer relationships makes him an ideal leader for Collins Bus,” said James Meyer, chief operating officer of ASV.
Notably, Peters has experience in the specialty vehicle industry, having served five years with fire truck maker Pierce Manufacturing Inc.
In this interview with SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon, Peters discusses his outlook on the Type A school bus market, insights from his experience in the fire truck industry and more.
SBF: What are your first orders of business as the new president of Collins Bus Corp.?
DAN PETERS: One really important thing is getting to know the key stakeholders, and in our case, that’s our customers and our employees. Although I’m coming from fire trucks to school buses, it’s not a huge jump. You have dealers, you have customers and you have employees, and you need to build a great quality product. So I’ve spent the first couple of weeks listening to those stakeholders, spending as much time on the [bus plant] floor as I can watching the product being built, and visiting with customers. Our suppliers and vendors play an important part of what we do, too. If I had to coin it, I’m trying to get the pulse of the organization — what makes us tick, what makes our customers tick.
Tell us about how your experience comes into play in your new position.
No. 1, probably most importantly, is that I’ve always had a focus on the customer, and I’ve always believed that if you put the customer first, everything else kind of takes care of itself. I think my experience of having that focus plays very well at Collins. Certainly, I’ve got a specialty vehicle manufacturing background. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve ever put a specialty vehicle together myself, but I’ve been around them a long time, and I’ve seen them go together and understand the intricacies of making a special product. The fact that we go to the market through dealers — I’ve got a lot of past experience with dealer relationships, and I think that plays well. Also, I’ve always been a big advocate of the voice of the customer when it comes to new product development, and I think with the NEXBUS product that Collins has put into the marketplace, they just did a fabulous job of playing out the voice of the customer.
At this point, are there any trends you see in the Type A market?
There are certainly some common themes. I come from an industry where municipal spending is dependent upon how the product gets purchased, so there’s certainly those common trends of people looking for the best value for their dollar. I think people are very conscious of the total cost of ownership. As we design and manufacture the product, we have to be very conscious of that. And in our case, I think we’ve been very progressive on the alternative-fuel side of the equation, with the introduction a year ago of our propane product, and this year of our CNG [compressed natural gas] product. If I see a trend, I think it’s that alternative fuels are kind of waking everybody up in the business right now. Where it goes, who knows? But certainly it’s what everyone’s talking about.
What do you find most interesting about the school bus industry in general?
I’ve spent a lot of time working in the fire service, and you talk a lot about the pride of building products that help firefighters protect people and land. I can think of no greater calling than to be building a product that protects our future, our children. You can hear it when you talk to our employees, and you can hear it when you talk to our dealers. So I think it’s a similar environment. You’re building a specialty vehicle that’s protecting a valuable asset. And in this case, it’s probably our most valuable asset.
What do you find most interesting about Collins specifically?
Well, certainly the quality of the product. Close after that is the market position. I’ve always been blessed to represent products that have very strong market positions. Certainly, the Collins product in the Type A market is no different. I’m really excited about the leadership and the commitment that I see from our parent company, Allied Specialty Vehicles. I think they’ve got a really interesting business model that allows us to continue to be a very key player in the school bus market. And I think when you put all those together, it will allow us to continue to deliver innovative solutions to the customers. The other thing that’s unique about Collins is that singular focus on the Type A business. I think a lot of people look at it as a negative. I look at it as a huge positive, because we focus all of our energy and all of our attention on being the best in that particular sector, and we don’t get distracted by other things.
You mentioned spending time in the plant watching the buses being built. What have you taken note of as you’ve been observing the process?
After being there for a day, I got a chance to speak to all of the employees, and I’ll tell you the same thing I told them. I was excited about the opportunity before I got there, and after spending one day on the floor, I was even more excited. The commitment that our people have to quality was greater than I had anticipated. When you look at the finished product, I can see why it’s as good as it is, because the people really care. Just in one day of me walking around and listening, the commitment they have to their particular responsibility on that bus was very impressive to me. And that’s a big part of any manufacturing, but certainly in specialty vehicles. The people have to have pride in what they do, and I can tell you that in Hutchinson, Kansas, there is a ton of pride in the product they’re building.