Kelley Platt became president and CEO of Thomas Built Buses in 2010.
SBF: It’s been about two and a half years since you came to Thomas Built Buses as president and CEO. What have been the biggest changes in that time?
KELLEY PLATT: For the school bus industry, the biggest change has been the lower tax base and municipal budgets. School districts are not just delaying purchases, like they might have done in previous recessions, but rather they’ve had to fundamentally look at how they approach school buses and school bus purchases.
We’ve seen districts implement straightforward changes, like increasing walking distances, consolidating routes, staggering bell times or extending the operating life of buses — where the industry average used to be somewhere around 10 to 12 years, it’s now probably in the 12- to 15-year range. In some places, operating life is creeping toward 20 years or more.
We’re also seeing districts explore some of the more complex changes, like looking at privatization where they might have not looked at it before. Some of them are experimenting with fees; some of them are experimenting with public transit systems.
So all of these changes that they’re making have shrunk the size of the school bus population, which in turn means you don’t need as many new ones. I think this is a fundamental shift in the industry — one that districts are not going to go back from. Once you stagger your bell times, you’re very unlikely to unstagger them.
The other thing we’re seeing is people interested in alternative fuel school buses of all varieties. Part of the interest is driven by a need to reduce costs, and part of it is driven by an increasing desire to have a clean, domestic fuel. We are still seeing a lot more looking than purchasing, but we’re starting to see more and more concrete activity in that regard.
At Thomas Built Buses specifically, historically our role has been to provide solutions for our customers, so we’re looking at these changes in the marketplace — both that they want to shrink the size of their fleet and that they’re becoming more cost conscious.
We have to look at our manufacturing and say, “What can we do to help them with that? How can we be more cost-effective? How can we continue to provide our commitment to quality and durability?” Because if they’re going to run their buses longer and harder, we’ve got to have a bus that’s going to meet those demands. And we also have to be responsive to their concerns about the environment.