Ken Hedgecock, vice president of sales, marketing, and service for Thomas Built Buses, has a long, storied history with the school bus manufacturer. His father, Kenneth Hedgecock, was hired by Jimmy Thomas, a member of the Thomas family, in 1958. During his 40-year tenure with the school bus manufacturer, Kenneth worked as a welder, an assembly technician, and stock room manager. Ken Hedgecock recalled that as a toddler he was brought to pick up his father from work every day and would see him walk out the lower plant door.
Fast forward to just after his high school graduation, Hedgecock embarked on his own career at the same company his father worked at as part of a summer internship program for college students. Over the last four-plus decades, he has spearheaded the manufacturer’s sales and marketing projects and has been instrumental in bringing new vehicles and safety technologies to the school bus market.
Here, Hedgecock details to School Bus Fleet his passion for getting school buses to be seen as part of the education process, the challenges that pupil transporters face with funding, the opportunity to lead the nation in clean energy implementation with electric vehicle (EV) technology, his role in introducing the Saf-T-Liner C2, which was pivotal to the school transportation industry, and his impending retirement plans.
SBF: When did you start working for Thomas Built Buses? What positions have you held with the company?
Ken Hedgecock: I started as a summer intern in 1975 and later transitioned to full-time work. Early on, I served as a regional sales manager, a role that I assumed for five years. Later, I became Thomas Built’s sales training manager, where I created a curriculum and sales training program promoting the features and benefits of Thomas Built’s buses. This program was very successful and continues today. I later moved into a director of sales position, and today I am the vice president of sales, marketing, and service.
I believe that education is the most important profession in the world, and through working with Thomas Built Buses, I am simply approaching the profession from a different angle.
It seems that your background as a teacher informed your work at Thomas Built Buses.
Transitioning to Thomas Built Buses was a natural move from my previous positions as an educator (Hedgecock worked as a Spanish and history teacher and assistant principal in the early- to mid-1980s) because it felt like another avenue in the field of education. After all, children cannot be educated until they get to school; pupil transportation is an invaluable part of the educational process. The school bus is their first and last touchpoint at the beginning and end of every school day. I think many people forget that. I believe that education is the most important profession in the world, and through working with Thomas Built Buses, I am simply approaching the profession from a different angle.
What would you say are some of your greatest accomplishments over the course of your career?
One of my proudest accomplishments here was establishing our corporate sales and dealer training programs. My background in education played a significant role in creating curriculum for our dealer body. It talked about the features and benefits of Thomas Built products and how to sell them. I started the program in 1992, and it continues today with great success.
Also, in 1997, I oversaw the creation and delivery of our very first electric school bus, then named Sparky. Polk County (Fla.) Public Schools requested the bus, which they piloted for a little more than a year. That was a major undertaking, and one that I am still proud of to this day.
The most notable product milestone I was a part of was the introduction of the Saf-T-Liner C2 in 2004, which revolutionized the industry. The C2 design process represented the first time that a bus body and chassis were designed concurrently and specifically to be proprietary to each other. That bus shaped the Type C product for our entire industry.
What benefits did the Saf-T-Liner C2’s design bring to the market?
Before the introduction of the C2, customers had to purchase a chassis from a chassis manufacturer, shop for a body, then have the chassis shipped to the body manufacturer. They then had to work with two companies for maintenance, service, etc. If a problem occurred, the chassis manufacturer would point a finger at the body manufacturer and vice versa. It wasn’t a streamlined shopping or service experience for the customer, and quite frankly, it wasn’t the right way to build a school bus.
The integration of the body and chassis makes for a stronger, more durable, and cohesive school bus. It also allows us to incorporate state-of-the-art features and new technology. Technologies like our new pedestrian detection system and Perimeter View 360 Camera Package (PV360) just wouldn’t be possible if our engineering team didn’t have access to both chassis and body.
You drove a compressed natural gas (CNG) school bus across the U.S. for Thomas Built Buses’ “Carolina-to-California” tour in 1992. How was the attitude toward alternative fuel-powered school buses compared to now?
During the tour, alternative fuels were new to the industry. Customers wanted information on CNG, but they weren’t quite ready to adopt the new fuel at that time. The mindset was very much “just keep us informed.” Today, as you know, the adoption of alternative fuels as well as gasoline is common.
But what hasn’t changed is the need for education. With so many fuels to choose from, customers need to understand all of the benefits and challenges of each fuel type. Every fuel has benefits and challenges; unfortunately, many customers aren’t doing their due diligence to dig into available information. Education is still very much key in making a sound decision on fuel of choice.
Tell us about Thomas Built’s first foray into the electric bus space with “Sparky” in 1997. What was your involvement in that project, and can you discuss how Thomas Built has evolved its electric bus?
Sparky was a one-year project. Florida had received some funding and wanted to explore electric school bus technology. We developed Sparky for this project as a learning opportunity only, and we actually bought it back in exchange for three new diesel buses at the end of the project.
Unfortunately, there is no direct link between Sparky and our Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley electric school bus today. During Sparky’s time, EV technology was not a viable solution. Battery technology was nowhere near what it is today, and at that time it just didn’t make sense.
Today, electric school buses are part of an extensive program at Thomas Built Buses, not just a project. EV technology is robust today and is advancing at a rapid pace. We believe that electric school buses are now the future of the pupil transportation industry. Battery technology has come a long way since our Sparky project, and we are excited to be leading the way in EV technologies.
What changes have you seen in the pupil transportation industry during the course of your career? What challenges and opportunities do you foresee?
The most significant change that I’ve seen is the willingness to change. During my tenure, the hallmark of the pupil transportation has been “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And here’s why: pupil transportation has been the most successful form of transportation — bar none. No one does transportation better than those in this industry. So, no one wanted to mess with the perfect formula.
But, in the last two to five years, I’ve sensed there is now a willingness to look at things differently, especially from a technological standpoint. No longer is being the best good enough. We have to be perfect. There is now a desire and willingness in the industry to strive for perfection. This has not always been the case. This desire is evidenced in the new “Zip. Zero. Nada. None.” campaign promoted by National Association of Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and embraced by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) and National School Transportation Association (NSTA). This campaign aims for zero accidents relating to school bus transportation inside or outside of the school bus. It is encouraging.
The biggest challenge that I have seen over the years and that persists today is lack of funding for drivers and for the incorporation of technology. Technology requires funds; it isn’t free. We have such limited resources to adopt new technology in our industry.
To overcome this hurdle, I think administrators and school boards need to see the link between pupil transportation and education. School buses should be viewed as a part of the education process. The school day starts for children when they step on the bus, and it doesn’t end until they step off. Right now, we are competing for resources rather than being one of the resources in the education process.
Lastly, the pupil transportation industry has a unique and rare opportunity to lead the commercial transportation industry in EV technology. Pupil transportation is the best application for electric vehicles. Pupil transportation also has the opportunity to lead the nation in clean energy implementation through electric vehicles.
You have been involved in the introduction of several safety features on school buses, ranging from flat-floor configuration in special-needs school buses to pedestrian detection. Which of these are you most proud of?
I am most proud of being on the forefront of the integration of the school bus with the introduction of the Saf-T-Liner C2. Here’s why: the integration of the chassis and body means that the running gear is no longer separate from the body, which means we can integrate advanced electrical systems in the school bus. Now, the school bus body and chassis can talk to each other. This allows us to integrate even more features into a school bus that were never possible, like auto-reversing doors, a pedestrian detection system, and eventually, everything being electrified on new electric school buses.
The introduction of the Saf-T-Liner C2 paved the way for the future. The integration of bus body and chassis in one vehicle also allows us to bring even more safety features to the industry in the near future, such as automatic braking, speed limit recognition, lane assist, adaptive cruise control, and other level-two automated driving technologies that will make school buses even safer.
Can you tell us what you have planned for your retirement?
I plan to retire around Dec. 31. I’m hoping to keep myself busy in pupil transportation. I’ve found it a blessing to work in this industry. I love it, and there are no better people than those in this industry. I would love to stay involved in some way, shape, or form.