When he founded Student Transportation of America in 1997, Denis Gallagher’s goal was fairly simple: “to just build a good company with good people who shared the same philosophy as I do,” as he puts it.
“I always thought that if you took care of the people you work with, they would take care of the customer, and the customer would take care of the company and so on,” Gallagher elaborated recently. “It’s called the ‘Service Profit Chain,’ and it is best delivered by people who really care about what they do. I thought if we did those things, we could possibly grow and make a difference.”
And grow they did. Student Transportation Inc. (STI), as the overall company is now known, has become the third-largest school bus contracting firm in North America. Each school day, STI shuttles 1 million students to and from school in the U.S. and Canada with a fleet of more than 11,000 yellow buses.
Gallagher, who serves as chairman and CEO of the company, has long been an outspoken champion of outsourcing school transportation in STI’s work with school districts and in high-profile interviews on news networks. He has led STI’s remarkable growth with a strategy dubbed “A-B-C”: acquisition, bid and conversion.
For his efforts in building a top-caliber company, providing safe and efficient transportation for students, and promoting privatized school bus service, SCHOOL BUS FLEET named Gallagher its 2014 Contractor of the Year.
SBF Publisher Frank Di Giacomo presented the honor at the National School Transportation Association’s awards banquet in Charleston, South Carolina, in July.
School bus roots
Gallagher was essentially born into the school bus business. In 1922, his grandfather launched a school transportation company when he began shuttling a few kids home from school in an old truck.
Gallagher’s father continued in the family business, called Coast Cities School Buses Inc., and later brought his son Denis on board.
“My father had the greatest influence in my career and taught me all about the school bus business,” Gallagher says. “He taught me how to drive, fix buses and dispatch as well as the importance of service to customers and the importance of never forgetting where you started.”
In 1987, Coast Cities — which had become the largest privately held school bus company in New Jersey — was sold to Laidlaw, where Gallagher became a senior executive and played an integral role in acquisitions and expansion into new markets. In 1996, Gallagher left to launch his own company.