Upon starting her first job in pupil transportation 31 years ago, Magda Dimmendaal didn’t expect to become an industry leader. She started as a bus driver and surprised herself by steadily rising up the ranks — to driver trainer, dispatcher, manager and then VP — before deciding to buy the company she had faithfully served, Dousman Transport in Dousman, Wis.
But the journey to the top wasn’t easy. Dimmendaal, who was born in the Netherlands, has had her share of challenges, like adjusting to what she calls “the American kind of English” and dealing with culture shock. She also had to learn how to drive a stick shift.
After making the switch from driver to manager, Dimmendaal had to deal with gaining the confidence of the drivers, her former peers. It was a tough feat, she says, considering that she had been a driver for only five years.
As former president of the Wisconsin School Bus Association and a board director of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), Dimmendaal is always open to advice and improvement. Although she has doubled the size of her company since she bought it in 1988, she wishes to keep it small to maintain the vital personal touch that keeps Dousman running so well.
For her contributions to the industry, Dimmendaal received SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s Contractor of the Year award on July 13 at the NSTA’s 40th annual convention in Minneapolis. She is the 37th recipient of the award.
How it started
Before inheriting her first contract, Dimmendaal had a lot of sleepless nights. When Dousman’s former owner, Bob Soulthcott, brought up his intention to sell the company, Dimmendaal knew the commitment required time and money. So, with a second mortgage on her house and a Small Business Administration loan, she finally had Dousman Transport on her lap, making her one of the few female owners in the industry at the time.
Now, with more than 100 buses and three terminals in her care, Dimmendaal is thankful she chose to venture beyond her initial doubts. The lessons she continually learns have expanded her enterprise. But even as company owner, Dimmendaal has never forgotten her prior driving experience. She occasionally substitutes because, she admits, it is preferable to doing paperwork.
Dimmendaal’s ability to keep students, parents and district contracts happy comes from putting her drivers first. She showed consideration for her drivers by setting up a committee this year to choose buses for Dousman’s fleet. The driver committee test-drove three manufacturers’ school buses for the first time.
Dimmendaal remembers what it was like to drive buses that had manual transmissions, fiberglass seats and no two-way radios, so she continually updates the company’s buses. Electric door-openers, acoustical headliners to reduce noise levels and intercom systems are just some of the features she has added.
Opportunities, not problems
With 124 employees and three district contracts, Dimmendaal knows problems are inevitable. Yet she manages to keep everything in control. “I tell my managers, ‘No, it’s not a problem; it’s an opportunity for us to show them how good we are.’”
Fifteen years ago, one of Dimmendaal’s drivers helped save a student from suicide by noticing behavioral differences. “Opportunities” like this have made Dimmendaal confident enough to withstand even the most undeserved parent complaints. “My favorite saying to them is, ‘If you promise to only believe half of what your children tell you happens on the bus, I promise to only believe half of what they tell me happens at home,’” she says.
Of course, providing incentives doesn’t hurt in keeping employees faithful to their boss. Besides honoring drivers during the state’s recognition week, Dousman gives out monetary rewards for perfect attendance, lack of chargeable accidents and long-standing employment.
This year, Dousman was proud to honor two employees — one who had been with the company for 25 years, the other for 40. Their lengthy tenures aren’t totally surprising given that the company boasts a five percent turnover rate.
Part of this retention success is due to the company’s hiring practices. Most new drivers are referred by current drivers.
Staying the course
Having a steady team means transporting students reliably. In fact, Dimmendaal promises that her drivers’ on-time delivery is 99 percent. “Generally if we’re late, it’s weather- or traffic-related,” she says.
Such good service explains why Dousman is fortunate to negotiate with its contracts. “Our school boards have always been happy with the service and have chosen to negotiate rather then put it out for bid,” Dimmendaal says.
Dousman Transport now has claims over three districts — all in Waukesha County, which is the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin. Annually, the company provides 3.7 million rides per 180-day school year.
Dousman and two of its contracts recently won NSTA Clean School Bus Subgrant awards. The district/contractor partnerships will use the funds to retrofit 20 buses.
After three decades in student transportation, Dimmendaal has managed to lighten her load. “I’ve hired a GM, so I’m not doing the five-in-the-morning to six-at-night routine anymore,” she says. “Thank goodness.”