John Elliott began his career in the education field more than 40 years ago and hasn't strayed far. He's still in the education business, but not as a teacher or office administrator.
These days, Elliott is one of the top school bus contractor executives in North America, serving as president and CEO of Durham School Services, headquartered in Downers Grove, Ill.
To recognize his contributions to school transportation over the past three-plus decades, SCHOOL BUS FLEET named Elliott its Contractor of the Year for 2007. He received the magazine's 40th award at the National School Transportation Association's (NSTA) annual convention in Boston in mid-July.
Elliott has been an active member of the NSTA board for more than 20 years and has generously contributed his wisdom. Often the last to speak during meetings, he is adept at summing up the discussion and providing perspective that helps to resolve an issue, without forcing his opinion.
"In many situations, even when John is not at the table for discussion, you'll hear someone say, 'Let's check to see what John thinks because you'll know it will be right on the mark," says Terry Thomas, a longtime NSTA board member and president of Community Bus Service in Youngstown, Ohio.
Elliott acknowledged the NSTA's contributions to the industry. "What this organization has brought to the industry in terms of government relations has been invaluable," he says. "I've long believed that our industry has needed a voice that could be heard at the national level."
An educator at heart
Elliott says his career in pupil transportation has allowed him to stay close to the educational process. "I have a high regard for the value of learning," he says. During his eight-year tenure in education, which began in 1964, he taught English and history at junior high and high schools and served as a central office administrator for school districts in Kankakee and Lockport, Ill.
But he left the educational field in 1972 to join an automobile leasing company in Kankakee. That company was renamed KAL Leasing, and Elliott was named president in 1974. In 1986, the owners sold the company to Ryder Truck, which had school bus operations in eight states. Elliott says he was still "very new" to the school bus industry, but got up to speed quickly as Ryder's western regional general manager.
In 1993, Elliott was named senior vice president and general manager of Ryder Student Transportation Services, as it was called. The company operated approximately 7,300 school buses and was the third-largest contractor in North America, behind Laidlaw Transit and Mayflower Contract Services.
In 1999, Ryder was purchased by British company FirstGroup and renamed First Student. In early 2000, Elliott was named president of First Student. He didn't remain with First Student for long, though. Later that year, he joined National Express Corp., another British company, as president and chief operations officer of its U.S. student transportation division, Durham Transportation. The company was renamed Durham School Services, and Elliott was named its president and CEO in 2004.
As reported in SBF's July issue, Durham School Services operates approximately 14,500 buses, transporting 800,000 students under 319 contracts with school districts.
Recipe for success
The aforementioned chronology charts Elliott's progress as a contractor executive, but it doesn't explain how he was able to move up the ranks so effectively. "An awful lot of people worked very hard to make me look good," he says. "I have been able to surround myself with people who are very knowledgeable and very good."
Those people tend to stay connected to Elliott, often following him from one assignment to the next. "I think the reason that people have been with me for so long is that they know that I truly care about them," he says. "I acknowledge their contributions and give them the credit for all the things that get done."
Elliott says his leadership style is to provide his managers with the resources they need and to let them do their jobs. "I could never conceive of micromanaging anything," he says. "The best definition of a leader that I've heard is 'someone who people are willing to follow.' I've tried to be that individual."
Elliott says many things in pupil transportation have stayed the same over the past three decades. "The basics are still the same," he says. "You still need to get the kids to and from school."
But many things have changed, too. "Now you've got more compliance and environmental issues," Elliott says. "And drivers used to be more inclined to be part-timers with other jobs. Now it may be the only job they have."
Finding and keeping good drivers remains a challenge. "That's probably the biggest," he says, adding that the recruitment and retention of other employees, such as monitors, dispatchers and technicians, is also a high priority.
In addition, the children have gotten tougher to handle. "They're a lot smarter now and more apt to challenge authority," Elliott says, "whether it's a driver, parent or teacher."
Another area of change has been in the bus manufacturing sector. "When I first started, there were eight bus manufacturers," he says. "Now there are just three manufacturers of conventional buses."
Bigger — and better
The size of the companies involved in the industry has increased as well. Some of the school bus contractors are now publicly owned, as are many of the vendors. "As companies have gotten larger, there's been more inclination to invest in the industry," Elliott says. "School buses have been safe, but now they're even safer."
The emphasis on safety is one of the industry's true constants. Complacency, Elliott says, is the enemy. "If you don't work at it, anything that becomes ordinary can jump up and bite you," he says.
Elliott says he's got great respect for his colleagues in the industry, especially those who have stayed involved for a long time. "When you look at our industry, there's nothing sexy about it," he says. "But there's a great deal of satisfaction at doing something and doing it well."
Elliott's own involvement is perhaps one of the best examples. "To be able to be in this industry for 35 years and to say I'm happy what I'm doing and that we've been good at what we do, I have been truly blessed in so many ways," he says.