Robert (Bob) Hach has led school bus companies big and small — including the biggest in North America at the time, Laidlaw Education Services. But regardless of the size of the company, his approach to leadership has stayed the same.
“Whether you’re running 50,000 buses or 10, you’re only as good as your last hire,” says Hach, now president and CEO of Sunrise Transportation in Crestwood, Illinois. “You have to make sure that they care as much as you do about getting kids to school safely and on time.”
In his more than 25 years in the school bus industry, Hach has been known for putting his people first — servant leadership, as he puts it. As his track record in the contracting business has shown — particularly in high contract renewal rates — his efforts to maintain strong morale among his staff have been key factors in the success of the companies he has helmed.
“I always felt if I took care of my people and treated them with respect — the Golden Rule — that they would work hard and treat their people well,” Hach says. “Then they treat the drivers well, and they take care of the kids and the customers, and it comes full circle.”
For his dedication to safe transportation for students and his leadership in the industry, School Bus Fleet has named Hach its 2016 Contractor of the Year. He is the 49th recipient of the award, which was presented at the National School Transportation Association’s (NSTA’s) annual meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, on July 19.
From trucking to busing
Hach was in the trucking business when Laidlaw recruited him as a regional vice president in 1990, launching his school transportation career. He quickly became a driving force in the company’s growth, as well as its efficiency and safety performance.
For example, Hach developed a strategic plan for Laidlaw that led to 13 acquisitions, doubling revenue in the company’s Midwest region from $50 million to $100 million over the following four years. He also led efforts to move from manual to computerized routing, to improve Laidlaw’s marketing campaigns, and to lobby state legislatures to allow school bus contracting.
As the company continued to grow through the 1990s, Hach rose through the management ranks, ultimately being named president and CEO of Laidlaw Education Services in 1998. This put him at the helm of the largest school transportation company in North America — and possibly the world — with a fleet of more than 40,000 school buses, annual sales of over $1.4 billion, and 45,000 employees throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Hach’s tenure as chief of Laidlaw Education Services coincided with tough times for parent company Laidlaw International, which was suffering from the poor performance of its non-school-bus service sectors.
But even as Laidlaw International filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2000, Hach’s Education Services division remained profitable — even being dubbed the “crown jewel” of the company. During the parent company’s Chapter 11 proceedings, Hach heightened internal and external communication efforts and helped the Education Services division maintain a 95% customer retention rate and a 98% employee retention rate.
Despite the continued success of his division, Hach left Laidlaw in 2001.
Over the past 15 years, Hach has put his pupil transportation expertise and his business acumen to work for several school bus contracting companies, including American School Bus Co. and Septran.
As president of special-needs transportation provider Septran, Hach bolstered customer relations, instituted new safety policies and operational improvements, and grew the company’s revenue by more than 90%. In 2011, he facilitated the acquisition of Septran by Krapf Bus Companies.
Hach’s current venture is Sunrise Transportation Holdings, which includes Illinois-based Sunrise Transportation and Connecticut-based Access Transportation Solutions. Both companies focus on transporting students with special needs.
Considering the sensitive condition of many of their passengers — as well as the behavioral challenges of others — Hach’s focus on supporting his team and giving them the tools they need is particularly vital. That includes specialized training for drivers, video surveillance systems on buses, safety awards, and other recognition programs.
“School busing is very service oriented – you have to find the needs for each school district,” Hach says. “Special-needs [transportation] takes it to the next level. ... Morale has to be great with your drivers.”
Sunrise, like Septran, is looking to help school districts co-op their special-needs transportation. As an example, four neighboring districts could enter into a combined contract with the company.
“We may have one bus that circles all four districts and takes students to a special school,” Hach explains. “It’s a win-win, because it allows for more efficient transportation for both the contractor and the school districts.”
Hach’s involvement with NSTA began shortly after he started his school transportation career with Laidlaw in 1990. Within a few years, he had earned the association’s Golden Merit Award.
Hach currently serves on NSTA’s board as an at-large director. His approach to leadership and his passion for safe and efficient student transportation have drawn praise from colleagues, including Tim Flood, past president of NSTA.
“Bob’s commitment to safety and caring for people, both his customers and his employees, have earned him an excellent reputation throughout the industry,” Flood says.