For DS Bus Lines founder Don Kincaid, the secret to success in school bus contracting is to treat every contract like a relationship.
“That’s how we approach our business — it’s a partnership, it’s a relationship, and that’s fun,” Kincaid says. “We use the word ‘business,’ but I call it a partnership and relationship. That’s what we did several years ago, and that’s what we’re doing again today.”
With 52 years of experience in the school bus industry under Kincaid’s belt, the approach has proven to work. In addition to Shawnee, Kansas-based DS Bus Lines, Kincaid has launched and grown multiple other companies, including Kincaid Coach in 1977 and Midwest Bus Sales in 1979.
From Driver to Owner
Kincaid first started working in the school bus industry as a driver, when he was 17 years old. At the time, he also began attending college, studying to become a school teacher. When opportunities arose to either begin teaching or to run a school bus company, he chose the latter.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to greet the students as they got on the bus and recognized that this is something we preach with our staff today: that we meet the student as they get on the bus,” Kincaid says. “Our attitude toward that student helps start their day. If we present ourselves correctly and make them feel warm and fuzzy, perhaps they’ll start their day at school the same way.”
In 1976, Kincaid secured a loan for $400,000, purchasing a fleet of 17 school buses and starting School Services and Leasing Inc. The company eventually expanded to a fleet of 3,500 buses operating across seven states, Kincaid said.
“We were the largest school bus operator in the year 2000 that was not a stock exchange company,” he says.
Eventually, School Services and Leasing was sold to National Express and became part of Durham School Services.
New School Bus Venture
DS Bus Lines, Kincaid’s latest venture, is the brainchild of Vice President Dale Bohn and President and CEO Scott Kincaid, Don Kincaid’s son. Scott Kincaid is the proprietor of day-to-day operations.
Bohn has worked in the school bus industry for 35 years and, like Don Kincaid, he began as a driver. Bohn started working for Kincaid in Wisconsin and eventually moved to Kansas, where DS Bus Lines operates.
“One of the main things is that I enjoy my relationship and working with Don,” Bohn says. “We’ve become very good friends, even outside of work.”
Kincaid says that DS Bus Lines runs on the same business philosophy as other companies that are part of the Kincaid Group.
“It doesn’t make any difference where I lay my head down or where I put my shoes on, we’re still the same people,” he says.
One of the cornerstones of that philosophy is fairness. Kincaid says that the company does not have a marketing team, and instead connects with contracts through its reputation. Part of maintaining that reputation involves DS Bus Lines’ refund policy.
“I want to make X dollars,” Kincaid says. “If I don’t make X dollars, I’m going to tell you I didn’t. If we make more than X dollars, I’m going to give you your money back.”
He says DS Bus Lines is refunding over $1 million across three school districts as a result of operating efficiencies. Some of the refunds are returned in cash, but the company has also developed scholarships, provided practice cars for driver’s education courses, and funded field trips to pay back excess profits to schools.
“Could we keep that because we have a contract?” Kincaid says. “Absolutely. But profit is not a dirty word; greed is.”
Finding Good Fits
Giving back to clients is part of how DS Bus Lines builds mutual trust with the districts that it works with. The company is also selective of who it works with.
The process of securing a contract involves multiple meetings with school districts, and figuring out if the district’s goals match DS Bus Lines’ business philosophy. According to Kincaid, economics takes a back seat to whether or not a partnership is the correct fit.
“When we meet, we evaluate whether they’re the kind of people we want to do business with,” he says. “If we don’t get that feeling, that vibration, we pass.”
That approach could be attributed to Kincaid’s ongoing success from other businesses. Primarily, the synergies between DS Bus Lines and other Kincaid Group companies such as Midwest Bus Sales exist in off-setting costs between businesses. This includes accounting or consolidating buying power.
For example, through Midwest Bus Sales, DS Bus Lines can purchase more buses and equipment than it would be able to as a lone company, Kincaid explains. Even so, each company operates separately, with its own management team and decision-making processes.
“If I don’t make X dollars, I’m going to tell you I didn’t. If we make more than X dollars, I’m going to give you your money back.” — Don Kincaid, founder
DS Bus Lines
Supporting the Drivers
One of the top challenges facing the school bus industry in general is a shortage of drivers. Kincaid says that DS Bus Lines hasn’t felt the impact of the shortage yet, and he cites the company’s emphasis of driver respect and support.
According to Kincaid, the driver is part of the relationship between DS Bus Lines and its clients, and to maintain a healthy relationship with drivers, the company pays fair wages and provides quality equipment.
For example, every bus in the contractor’s fleet is under five years old, which Kincaid says helps give drivers a sense of pride. Having started in the industry as a driver, Kincaid sees himself as their peer.
“When I go down the bus lot, so many people say, ‘Hello, Mr. Kincaid,” and I say, ‘Hey, my name isn’t Mr. Kincaid. That’s my dad. My name is Don,’” he says. “I want to be on a first-name basis. I’m not any better than the guy that’s driving that bus. That’s respect.”
‘Old School’ Approach
Kincaid’s foremost goal with DS Bus Lines is safely transporting children. He says that there are numerous opportunities for the company to grow and make more money by cutting costs or taking shortcuts on safety. But for Kincaid, longevity and success is determined by a company’s commitment to its values and instilling a sense of pride in its work — an attitude he calls “old school” but effective.
That concept extends to DS Bus Lines’ approach to route planning, which involves the use of both routing software and on-the-ground planning.
“We really believe in the old-fashioned way of putting our routes together based on our experience and not relying 100% on computerized routing programs,” Bohn says. “We’ll have people go out and drive [the routes] to make sure the timing is right based on traffic patterns, based on construction, different things like that.”
By taking a more traditional approach to running DS Bus Lines, Kincaid acknowledges that may close some opportunities with school districts looking for cheaper providers. In his view, ensuring the safety of students is worth paying more for.
“Accidents are going to happen, but as long as we do everything in our power to avoid that opportunity with the proper equipment, properly trained drivers, proper insurance, proper attitude with the students, proper relationships and partnerships with the districts and municipalities, we will be successful,” Kincaid says. “And others will go by the wayside.”