Most school bus contractors will have one chance at success in the pupil transportation industry, but Reliance Student Transportation President and CEO John Polli has had two.
From purchasing and operating one school bus company to later establishing another from the ground up, Polli has shown a keen interest in effective employee management and finding new and innovative ways to recruit drivers.
When Polli first moved to York County, Pennsylvania, in 1990, he began working at a local waste management company. Within a few years, Polli had risen up the ranks to become the company’s vice president and chief financial officer.
At the time, Polli says his position was heavily acquisition-oriented, and the company was often presented with deals to purchase other companies, including one contract to purchase Reliance Motor Coach Co., a school transportation provider, back in 1993.
“We thought it was a good deal, but then we couldn’t proceed because of a conflict,” he explains.
Nearly four years later, with little to no experience in the school bus industry, Polli reached out to the family of Carl Caskey, the man who started Reliance Motor Coach Co. during the 1950s, with a proposal to purchase the company after leaving his post in the waste management business.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, but I quickly realized that the school bus business was almost a natural extension of the waste management industry,” he says. “You had to handle drivers, capital, equipment, insurance, CDL regulations, and contracting. It was all a natural fit.”
From 1997 until 2006, Polli owned and operated Reliance Motor Coach Co. with over 300 bus routes in three locations, before selling it to National Express, the parent company of Durham School Services.
After the sale, Polli continued on with Durham for five years as a senior vice president working on acquisitions and business development before leaving in 2012.
“I just sort of retired from the school bus side of the world,” he explains.
However, his retirement from the industry was short-lived as many of the school districts he once partnered with urged him to start up again. This resulted in Polli founding Reliance Student Transportation in 2015. (The company took the 36th spot on School Bus Fleet’s 2019 Top 40 Contractors list.)
“It was kind of like the American dream,” he says. “We bid one of our local districts and we didn’t have any locations, people, or anything. We attained this contract with the district in January 2016.”
Within three years, Polli was able to reinvent Reliance — establishing contracts with four York County school districts and acquiring over 300 drivers and staff.
Reliance has also managed to expand its fleet to about 200 buses, all IC Bus diesel-powered Type Cs, with the exception of 14 Blue Bird FE diesel buses, five Collins minibuses, and 120 Ford 10-passenger transit vans.
Polli admits that this time around, Reliance is much more cautious in its operations, especially given today’s driver recruitment and training challenges.
Creating Top-notch Drivers
Like most school bus contractors, Reliance emphasizes the need for creating reliable and safety-compliant drivers.
“We spend a lot of time on coaching and personal development for our drivers and full-time staff,” Polli says. “Our schools expect a high level of service from us, and we want to be able to deliver.”
The company regularly enlists the help of a personal development coach to work with the Reliance team to discuss the need for making and achieving safe transportation goals.
In addition to consistent coaching, Polli credits much of the company’s success to positive relationships fostered among his location managers and drivers.
“Most [school transportation] managers never get trained in a school bus company on how to deal with a negative driver situation,” he explains. “If a manager has to have a tough conversation with two drivers in one day about their behavior, they may not know how to handle it and then will avoid it.”
Incentives are also a plus, Polli adds. Each year Reliance recognizes its veteran drivers and those that have perfect attendance with an appreciation ceremony. During the winter months, Polli says he’ll even gift blankets to drivers so they can stay warm while they’re out completing routes.
“We do a lot of little things just to create a positive environment to get the driver behavior we want,” he says. “We want everyone to be here every day, and we want to show them that we appreciate what they do.”
Boosting Recruitment Efforts
As the driver shortage continues to affect many school bus contractors across the U.S., Reliance has found some solutions in its hiring practices.
The company spends about eight to 12 weeks “creating” drivers, Polli says, from the time they are processed for their background checks to the time they complete the onboarding process.
“We don’t get people walking in with their CDL and their school bus endorsement, which is something that you need in Pennsylvania, so we have to train to a certain state standard,” he says. “The problem is a lot of people find [the training] overwhelming or boring so we’ve created an environment that is more interactive.”
This year, Reliance added two new full-time staff members to its team — a director of recruitment and a director of education and compliance — to enhance employee management.
Additionally, the company utilizes an applicant tracking software called Tenstreet which helps to efficiently monitor its driver applications through a web-based dashboard.
“The dashboard gives us the chance to see our applicant flow from 30 to 60 days, and see where we are getting people from,” Polli explains. “Usually, we need to see about 30 to 40 applications to actually get three people on board.”
More recently, Reliance launched its new Meet the Bus program to give potential drivers the chance to get behind the wheel before submitting their driver application.
“We’ve done the Meet the Bus program twice this year, and we’ve been able to pick up four to six people within a four-hour period,” he notes. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you have 30 school bus routes, that’s 10 to 12%.”
New Challenges, Triumphs
Looking ahead, Polli plans to continue growing Reliance’s fleet operations not only with more buses, but with the use of more transit vans.
“Most of the contracts we have taken over had vans, so the mix is probably 65% buses and 35% vans for our fleet,” he says. “This is all because of the special-needs routes and non-public transportation routes that we do.”
The use of more vans, however, presents more challenges for student safety, Polli says. Because van drivers aren’t subject to the same stringent state regulations as bus drivers, Reliance has taken additional steps to ensure student safety, including the installation of interior cameras and child check systems on all of its vans, and requiring all of its van drivers to complete physicals and background checks, as well as drug and alcohol tests.
“Our van drivers may only be transporting three or four students, but an accident is an accident, and a bad driver is a bad driver,” Polli says. “We always want to be safe, reliable, courteous, and creative to our customers. That will always be a part of our motto.”