When Riley Williams began in the contracting business in 1975, he had little knowledge about school buses.
Williams’ father, who ran an eight-bus operation, had died suddenly. Williams and his wife, Carol, decided to take on the family business.
While Williams lacked yellow bus experience at the time, he made up for it with sharp business instincts, a magnetic personality and dedication to serving students and their families. He quickly learned the ropes of pupil transportation while working to build strong relationships with school leaders and to earn the trust of the community.
“Everybody knew that Riley would take care of their kids,” his daughter Chloe Williams says. “Everybody had the confidence in him.”
That commitment to his customers and community continued throughout Riley Williams’ career. For his decades of safely transporting students, contributing to industry associations and giving back to the community, School Bus Fleet named Williams its 48th Contractor of the Year.
The posthumous award came a month after Williams died in June. SBF General Manager James Blue presented the honor at the National School Transportation Association (NSTA)’s awards ceremony in Minneapolis on July 21. Carol and Chloe Williams accepted the award on Riley’s behalf.
From trucks to buses
Riley Williams’ parents founded B.R. Williams Inc. in 1935. They initially provided transportation service to the school in rural Alloway Township, New Jersey, where the company is based.
Williams didn’t graduate from high school, but he earned a GED. After serving in the U.S. Air Force for four years, he drove a truck for a chemical company. During his time as a truck driver, he and Carol married and had three kids.
When Riley and Carol Williams acquired B.R. Williams Inc. from his parents in 1975, it was still a small company serving its hometown with eight school buses. But soon a neighboring school district wanted to privatize its transportation service.
With the help of a colleague in the contracting business, Williams pulled resources together, bid for the district’s contract and got it. Then another district went out to bid for its school bus service, and Williams won that contract as well.
Williams expanded the business fairly quickly during his first eight years at the helm, and it continued to grow gradually over the following decades. Today, B.R. Williams Inc. operates about 180 school buses and serves students in more than a dozen districts in New Jersey.
Along with running a respected school bus operation, Williams was recognized for his impact in state and national associations.
Early in their contracting career, Riley and Carol became members of NSTA in 1985. The couple drove about 90 miles to Baltimore for their first NSTA convention in 1988. From that point on, they regularly attended the association’s annual gatherings for the majority of their time in the industry.
Williams also offered vital leadership and shared his insights with colleagues throughout New Jersey. Also early in his career, he joined the New Jersey School Bus Owners Association, and he went on to serve two terms as president of the group.
That state association split into two in 1997, with some members breaking off to form the Garden State School Bus Contractors Association. After years of the two groups operating separately, Williams was integral in reuniting them.
“He was one of the old timers who said, ‘We need to put it back together,’” Chloe Williams says.
In June 2012, the two groups merged to form the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association (NJSBCA). The association encompasses more than 30 contractors and around 10,000 of the 17,000 privately owned school buses in the state.
NJSBCA represents small, medium and large contractors. Like B.R. Williams Inc., many of them are multi-generation family businesses.
Riley Williams continued to contribute to NJSBCA, in recent years driving with Chloe to the association’s monthly meetings.
“It was good to have him there to get his perspective — to hear some of the wisdom you get from the old guys,” Chloe says.
On Riley Williams’ passing, the NJSBCA issued a statement pointing to his leadership, influence and dedication to the industry throughout his career.
“B. Riley Williams was a man of dignity who acted quietly and gave generously,” NJSBCA officials said. “He did the right thing — not for rewards or recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. … Riley will be fondly remembered and infinitely respected.”
“Everybody knew that Riley would take care of their kids. Everybody had the confidence in him.”
-Chloe Williams, B.R. Williams Inc.
While contributing to school bus industry associations, Williams also gave of his time and resources to charitable causes.
For example, B.R. Williams Inc. organized a Stuff the Bus campaign and collected 17 busloads of food and supplies for Hurricane Sandy victims in 2012. Williams himself drove one of the buses to deliver the aid to North Jersey.
“Dad drove, loaded and unloaded supplies,” Chloe says. “He just loved being able to do that.”
Also, for the past 12 years, B.R. Williams Inc. employees have been participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. Through those efforts, the school bus company has raised more than $50,000 for the cancer-fighting organization.
Chloe says that since her father’s passing, numerous people have told her about the support that her father provided.
“You truly didn’t know who he had helped or given to — he didn’t want the [recognition],” Chloe says. “It was just his way of giving back.”
Today, with a total roster of about 250 drivers, aides and office staff members, B.R. Williams Inc. is a far bigger operation than it was when Riley and Carol Williams took the reins 40 years ago. But Chloe says that the company still has the same “personal touch” and commitment to the families it serves.
“We truly feel that they’re our kids,” she says. “We need to do whatever we can to get them to school safe and sound and back home safe and sound. Dad always said that.”
Treating the students with respect is one of the company’s practices for fostering good behavior on the bus.
“You talk to them like a person, they’re good kids. That’s the direction we go,” Chloe says. “People say, ‘I don’t know if I could drive a school bus.’ But we say, ‘Our kids are great.’”
As with many contractors and school districts across the nation, school bus driver shortage is a key issue for B.R. Williams Inc. Adding to the challenge is that New Jersey has been closing some of its CDL road test sites, which means that the company has to take prospective drivers farther to get them licensed.
“Now we’ve got to drive about 40 miles to a testing site. Two months ago, we had to drive 15 miles,” Chloe says. “It makes it more difficult to entice new drivers.”
As for the company’s existing school bus drivers, many have been in it for the long haul.
“Most of the drivers we’ve known really well for a long time,” Chloe says, adding that the veterans help attract new recruits. “A lot of the time, word of mouth is how we’re getting our staff.”
On the road
In 2000, B.R. Williams Inc. was featured in School Bus Fleet’s “Great Fleets Across America” series.
At the time, Riley Williams had turned over day-to-day operations to Chloe three years earlier, but he remained active in the company. Like his wife and his daughter, Williams pitched in as needed by getting behind the wheel.
“I still drive part-time, so I’m out there with [the drivers],” Williams told SBF at the time, noting that the ground-level contact was important because it helped drivers feel comfortable with him. “That makes a difference.”