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March 19, 2013  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Horlock points to growth in propane business for Blue Bird

With Blue Bird recently netting its biggest-ever order of propane school buses — more than 400 — President and CEO Phil Horlock is ebullient about the fuel’s potential. Here, he discusses alternative fuels, the state of school bus sales and other pertinent topics.

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Blue Bird marked its 85th anniversary last year. Obviously much has changed since the company’s early days, but what are some things that haven’t changed?
One thing I’ve learned since I joined this company — I’m in my fourth year here — is that it’s a brand that’s incredibly well known. That brand has been synonymous with school buses for 85 years. And I think one thing that’s special about Blue Bird is that everything we do is about school buses. We don’t build trucks; we don’t build chassis for other uses. Even when we sell a transit bus, the underpinning is entirely a school bus. School bus is our No. 1 priority — always has been.

That really goes back to the Luce family, who founded this company in 1927. That was what they were all about: a safe ride for our schoolchildren every day. The four things that the Luce family talked about are right at the front of our mission statement: We commit ourselves to safety, quality, durability and serviceability. This is our heritage, and it’s something we’ll always stand for.

Another thing, too: We were founded on very strong Christian principles here. Our original founder did a lot of work here in the community, and he employed a full-time chaplain in Blue Bird to give services every week for the employees. And we’ve continued that. We have a full-time chaplain, and every couple of weeks we have a service here. We invite family members to join us as well.

Another commitment of Blue Bird is to anticipate the need for change and be at the forefront of meeting customers’ needs. That goes way back to 1937: Blue Bird introduces the first all-steel school bus. Until then, all the bus bodies were made of wood. The first CNG, electric and propane school buses were all Blue Bird in the ‘90s. We want to keep being as innovative as we can be.

Blue Bird exhibited at a couple of events in China last year. Tell me about the opportunities you see there.
With its huge population, I think China, over the long haul, is going to be the largest school bus market in the world. The new [school bus] standards that were put out there, which are still being reviewed, show the government’s commitment to a professional, safe school bus industry.

I was just pleased that we were able to get out there, get our name known and build up a lot of connections. We’ve had many Chinese companies tour our plant as a result.

Still, our core business is far and away North America. We’re looking at China all the time, but we see it as more of a long-term opportunity, to be frank. Actually, we’re always on the lookout for opportunities, be it South America, the Middle East or other markets around the world. Over the years, we’ve sold in 60 different countries.

Are there any other new developments that you want to mention?
Well, we’re looking forward to celebrating that by May this year, 550,000 Blue Birds will have rolled off the line in our lifetime. That’s pretty exciting for us.

I think you’re going to see us do a few things to solidify our leadership in the alternative-fuels market. I can’t tell you what they are now. You’ll have to wait and see later this year.

And I just look at where we are at Blue Bird: We’ve grown market share significantly these last couple of years. We’re excited about the times we’re in here. Just a couple of years ago, we were closing our plant in North Georgia. We had too much capacity for the demand that was out there; we had to rationalize.

And now we’re all here in Fort Valley, except for our Type As that we make just outside of Montreal. But all our Cs and Ds come off the same production line here in Fort Valley. We’ve got a great, experienced team, and we’re very proud of that.

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