Pete Settle, president of Petermann LLC in Cincinnati, has tried to walk away from the school bus business three times, unsuccessfully. Careers in automotive engineering and law have been swept aside for continued involvement with yellow buses. "I am now convinced that I will end my career in this business," says Settle.
Which is good news for the school transportation industry. Over the past three decades, Settle has made key contributions to the industry, including exemplary work for the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), Ohio Bus Association and school districts in the Cincinnati area.
"Pete is a wonderful ambassador for private school bus operators to the industry," says Terry Thomas, past president of the NSTA and president of Community Bus Services in Youngstown, Ohio. "He provides a wealth of knowledge and experience from his days with Laidlaw and his experience with a small family-owned operation."
For his contributions on the local, state and national level, Settle was named the 2002 Contractor of the Year by SCHOOL BUS FLEET. Settle received the award on July 23 at the National School Transportation Association's annual convention in Chicago. He is the 35th recipient of the annual award.
Settle was born into the school bus industry. His father, William, was a school bus contractor. William's stepfather, Carroll H. Petermann, started the business in 1921 to help a disabled grandson receive an education. Petermann, a Ford dealer, bought a bus to transport his grandson and several other disabled children to a classroom in the basement of a Cincinnati hospital. Eight years later, Petermann raised money to build the first special-needs school in Ohio, now called the Roselawn-Condon School.
Petermann Transportation, as the company was named, expanded over the decades. Pete's father joined the business full time in the 1950s and eventually started another company, Settle Service. He continued to run the two companies until 1989, when he sold both concerns to his sons — Pete and his three brothers, Mike, Bill and Patrick.
Laidlaw buys company
In 1992, the Settles sold the operation to Laidlaw Transit, and all four brothers began working for the rapidly expanding school bus contractor. Settle said he had planned to work for Laidlaw for only six months but ended up staying for six years. By the time he left in 1998, Settle had worked his way up to the title of vice president of sales and marketing of the school bus division.
Settle's decision to leave Laidlaw was based on shifting dynamics within the company but also the brutal travel schedule that separated him from his wife and young children for up to 190 days a year. "For a long time, when I wore a tie to work, my kids used to ask me if I was going to be home for dinner because that meant I was leaving town," he says. "Now I spend less than 10 days on the road. It's a big plus."
After his departure from Laidlaw, Settle did some "soul searching," trying to decide on a new course of action. He thought about going back to his law practice (he earned his law degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1990), but started receiving phone calls from local school districts asking about bus service. "It was the first time I had a school district take me to lunch, pay for it and ask me to do their busing," he says with a laugh.
In early 1999, buoyed by interest from school districts for his transportation expertise, Settle founded Petermann LLC, a throwback in name and spirit to the family-owned school bus operation. He recalls buying a laptop computer to prepare his first presentation to a prospective school district, but making sure to keep the receipt in case the Petermann endeavor failed to get off the ground.
Key contract acquired
Settle didn't have to return the computer. In a short time, he landed an 80-bus contract with the Hamilton County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities in Cincinnati. "We've had a long association with them," Settle says, explaining that Carroll Petermann, who died in 1960, had strong ties to the special-needs community in the Cincinnati area.
Then came a contract with Cincinnati Public Schools, some school district conversions and some successful bids. Over the past three years, Settle has built the company from scratch into a 525-bus operation that transports approximately 40,000 students per day.
Settle has had the help of his three brothers, who joined him shortly after the founding of Petermann LLC. Together, they form the core management team. Mike is chief operations officer, Bill is director of operations, and Patrick is director of fleet and facilities.
Unlike many school bus contractors, Settle says one of his challenges is controlling growth. "We're a different proposition than a large company, and the last thing we want to do is to start to look like a large company," he says. "We need to make sure we don't lose sight of why people want to do business with us."
Settle credits his wife, Krista, for weathering the ups and downs and uncertainties of the bus business, especially the start of a new one, Settle says. "It was a lot harder than I thought it would be," he admits. "I was naive."
The Settles have three children: Caterina, 7; Sophia, 5; and Peter, 4. For a show-and-tell project last year, Caterina had her father bring one of his full-size school buses to school. "It was National School Bus Safety Week, so it was a good chance to have the kids learn about safe riding procedures," Settle says. "Caterina now has the distinction of bringing in the largest show-and-tell [project] in school history."