From farming to running one of the most well-known bus companies in Wisconsin, the Lamers family is in it for the long haul.
Company President Allen Lamers’ uncle, a farmer named Norman Bain, also started a bus company. Then, one summer in 1944, Bain asked his brother-in-law, Lyle Lamers, to drive for him. Soon after, Lyle had bought a bus from him, and started a school and charter bus company, Lamers Bus Lines, that same year with his wife, Ellen.
Allen’s mother was a big source of inspiration to him, he says. She continued driving buses up to two months before she passed away of cancer at 54, in 1972.
Lyle started transporting students to and from Grant School District, and after a few years, they began servicing what is now known as West De Pere School District.
“We hauled all the kids in a new, nine-passenger Chevrolet Suburban,” Allen says. “We still have that unit. It has been restored. It’s from the first series of Suburbans that came out.”
Lyle drove buses for the company until age 72, and passed away in 2012.
More recently, the company, which operates from 37 locations in Wisconsin, ranked No. 10 on School Bus Fleet’s 2016 Top 50 Contractors list, with a fleet of 1,400 school buses, transporting 65,000 students under 40 district contracts.
A family affair
In 1948, after Lyle and Ellen bought a second bus, they gradually expanded the fleet, and their growing family hasn’t stopped building the business since.Lyle’s sons, Allen and Kevin, who is now the chief financial officer, pitched in. Then, when Allen and his first wife began having children, she drove buses and ran the business office from 1966 until 2000, when she passed away.
Their middle daughter, Sherry, worked with her mom and has run that office ever since. Allen’s other daughter, Jill, works in the Milwaukee office, and his son, Mark, handles all the computer and phone installation work for the company.
“It’s funny, because one of the [staff members] we talked to said, ‘I’ve been here so long that Sherry was 2 years old when I came here to work,’” Allen notes. “Time flies.”
Lamers Bus Lines started its informal partnership with Blue Bird when salesman Red Moseley built a relationship with the Lamers family in 1966, and they came to rely on the exceptional quality of the buses and the bus manufacturer’s service, Allen says.
“He knew he had a good product, so we used it, and we felt it was high quality,” he adds. “But there was nothing formal about it. As long as they had a good product, we kept working with them, and if there were concerns, we would let them know and they would take care of it. We wanted the best unit out there and thought we were getting it, and had the most success with it.”
“Over the years,” Allen adds, “Blue Bird has offered a good, quality product, built in America, and we want to make sure we are getting the best value for our dollar, because these units go on the road and affect the students in the whole Wisconsin and upper Michigan area. We felt this is our best value for the dollar spent.”
Lamers currently operates over 150 Blue Bird Vision Propane buses, making up about 10% of its fleet, and it uses them at about five of the school districts for which it provides transportation.
In July, Blue Bird and Lamers partnered on a propane training clinic, which Lamers hosted at its training center, and invited some of the other school transportation companies in the area to send their technicians.
“The more we all learn, the better it is,” Allen says.
The company’s biggest success has been adding the propane-fueled buses to its fleet, Allen says.
“We had 40 [propane buses] that we put in Milwaukee at the beginning of the last school year,” he explains. “It’s working out well. I’m not spending $3,000 to $4,000 cleaning out filters and having problems with some of that stuff.”
As is the case for many other school transportation providers, the bus driver shortage has been a challenge, and dealing with the many regulations that govern the transportation industry has made it more expensive to do business, Allen says. To adjust, the company has operated lean, and having a strong maintenance staff has been crucial.
When asked what Lamers has done to mitigate its driver shortage, Allen says, “You think of it, we have tried it.” The company has placed radio and TV ads and has featured its school buses at community gatherings.
More generally, retaining capable staff members, many by well over 30 years, by treating them with respect and providing solid benefits keeps turnover low, he adds.
“We have the blessing of a [loyal] staff. I just had one retire last week that had been with me 40-plus years. She had to because of health. Our fleet supervisor, Bill Taylor, completed 42 years this June. That kind of knowledge really is irreplaceable.”
To retain drivers, the company also offers hiring and safety bonuses, allowing drivers to earn up to $600 extra a year. Plus, it has significantly increased pay rates.
This summer, Lamers bought about 130 new school buses, with some of those replacing aging vehicles, and others intended to fulfill new contracts for additional school districts.
Moving forward, the company’s concentration will continue to be on keeping up the quality of its service, improving it in any way, and “giving our customers the best ride for what they are spending,” Allen adds.