Going above and beyond for customers, with services such as school bus pre-inspection and driver and bus leasing, coupled with a talent for reinvention, has kept London, Ohio-based contractor VAT Inc. thriving over its 35-year history.
The contractor got its start through the family of Paul Vellani, now president of VAT. His sisters attended a Catholic school that bought three buses and recruited parents to drive, including Vellani’s father, John. In return, the school discounted their children’s tuition. Later, when a nearby school also made the leap into transportation but realized it wasn’t a good fit for them, John Vellani bought the school’s buses.
The VAT name comes from the three original business partners: John Vellani, Jerry Alcott, and Earl Taylor. In 1992, the company bought freight carrier Building Systems Transportation (BST) and began operating under that name, but the VAT moniker was resurrected for the school bus operation in 1996.
Over the years, VAT acquired more buses and started helping Columbus City Schools with extra route work, and business snowballed quickly, Paul Vellani says. From 1998 to 2009, the company’s revenue doubled each year.
In 2005, VAT moved into its first full-scale bus facility, and had phones, a web presence, and mechanics for the first time. In 2008, the company acquired a nearby bus contractor, doubling its fleet size.
Meanwhile, VAT hired a director of safety and maintenance, a former Ohio State Highway Patrol inspector, to oversee compliance with state safety regulations and upkeep of its newly expanded fleet. When that director retired, VAT replaced him with another former Highway Patrol trooper who sits on the state advisory board for bus standards. The contractor decided to tap this unique expertise to provide additional service to customers: offering pre-inspections.
“For a minimal fee, we will pre-inspect their buses as if we are the Highway Patrol,” Vellani says. “We’ll find defects and repair them, to help them pass their annual inspections. A lot of customers are holding their inspections at our facility. That way, if something does go wrong, we have mechanics on site [to fix it].”
VAT continued to grow, and then in 2009 had to scale back when a contract with Columbus City Schools was not renewed. When that happened, Vellani says, the company had to reinvent itself.
“At our largest, we had 120 pieces of equipment. When we did not get the contract renewal, we downsized and probably cut too much, not knowing what our future looked like,” he recalls.
VAT managed to rebuild its fleet to 65 buses and didn’t lose many staff members. With those buses, all IC Bus diesel-powered Type Cs, and three vans, the contractor now covers the entire state of Ohio.
However, VAT is “not a typical contractor,” Vellani points out.
“Our bread and butter isn’t taking kids to and from school on a daily basis. We do a lot of that, but that’s not how we started in business, and that’s not why we stay in business.”
Instead, VAT “does everything that a district can’t do,” he adds. Columbus City Schools is currently hiring VAT for its middle school sports programs’ athletic trips and for most of its academic field trips, because the district’s buses are busy from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Even with a fleet of 845 buses, the district needs transportation assistance. And that’s where VAT steps in.
“We do that for pretty much every school district, private school, and the majority of charter schools in central Ohio,” Vellani explains. “On average, we do 100 to 150 trips a day.”
Additionally, as the driver shortage has grown in the last few years, VAT has added a service: leasing drivers and buses to help districts mitigate their driver shortages.
“If they can’t recruit [drivers], they can call us and we will send them however many they need for the day,” he says. “The nice thing the districts have found is, if they don’t like a driver, they can request another. They don’t have to invest in hiring and training [new drivers], and they don’t have to deal with disciplinary issues and termination.”
VAT leases approximately 15 to 20 drivers a day, but keeps some to drive about 20 routes a day, primarily for private school contracts.
“We have drivers who will drive an hour-and-a-half one way to get to a customer, then turn around and drive their routes or trips, then turn around and drive an hour-and-a-half back to [the bus compound],” Vellani says.
VAT’s equipment leasing service has also become popular, and the company has taken on maintenance of its customers’ buses.
“It’s almost developed into a side bus and small truck repairs [service], even though that wasn’t our intention,” Vellani says.
VAT also uses slip seating: A driver will come in at 5 a.m. and do their morning route and then do four more trips, but only the front half of them, because they have a mid-day route. Then another driver who doesn’t have a route will come in and finish those trips. As Vellani sees it, if buses are sitting, they are not making money, and it’s an expensive piece of equipment to have sitting around.
“For a minimal fee, we will pre-inspect their buses as if we are the Highway Patrol. We’ll find defects and repair them.”
Paul Vellani, president of VAT Inc.
As a private carrier, VAT struggles with dealing with regulations from many government agencies, some of which, Vellani says, are duplicated. Drivers are now required to get two physicals, one for the U.S. Department of Transportation card and another for the state of Ohio. Buses undergo two major annual inspections: one from the State Highway Patrol and one from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
“Getting 65 vehicles inspected takes two full weeks,” Vellani explains.
Additionally, VAT answers to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which governs summer camp transportation.
“We now have a procedure for our summer [camps] work [to ensure] we are in compliance with its applicable rules and regulations,” Vellani says.
He also cites struggling to keep up with demand and union issues as obstacles to assisting some potential customers.
“We try to help everybody as best as we can. We’ll go anywhere: to Toledo, on the Michigan border; to Cincinnati; to smaller, rural districts. [But] a lot of districts are having union problems [that aren’t] allowing our drivers in to help.”
VAT’s knack for reinvention has kept it thriving and customers happy over the years, but more recently, that ability has also helped the contractor get back to its basics.
“Charter work is how we got started,” Vellani says. “We got back to doing what we enjoyed. It’s fun to take the kids to their football game, watch them play, and then drive them back.”
VAT recently implemented two-way radio systems, REI camera systems in many of its buses, and Zonar GPS systems on all of its buses, and is currently looking into technology for dispatching, timekeeping, and bookkeeping.
“If you can imagine what our schedule looks like with 65 buses all over the map, it’s daunting,” he adds.
Looking ahead, VAT will continue to bid on contracts in Ohio as they become available. In addition to providing school transportation, the contractor is pursuing motorcoach and delivery work, and is starting construction project transportation. Noting its reputation for going the extra mile, customers have started asking VAT for shuttles to the airport; wedding shuttles; and corporate event transportation, which VAT is also considering.
“We couldn’t do this before, strictly operating under an Ohio Department of Education license,” Vellani says, “but under the PUCO [Public Utilities Commission of Ohio] license, we can do these legally and add coaches or activity buses to the fleet. It’s happening.”