After enduring the challenging school bus market conditions of recent years, Blue Bird has rallied with increased focus and efficiency at its operations in Fort Valley, Ga., and business has been on the upswing for the manufacturer. The company’s total sales have increased about 40% from 2012 to 2014.
Phil Horlock, president and CEO of Blue Bird Corp., said during a recent interview in Fort Valley that Blue Bird now has “strong liquidity” and is “growing market share, investigating new products and investing in new equipment.”
The rising star for Blue Bird has been its propane autogas school buses, sales of which have consistently grown year over year. In 2013 in particular, the company’s propane bus sales multiplied compared to 2012.
“Last year was a tipping point,” Horlock said, noting that customers are seeing multiple benefits with the propane buses, such as lower fuel and maintenance costs, quieter operation and more reliable starting in cold weather.
While many school bus operations were initially buying one or two propane buses at a time, large orders have become more common in the past few years.
As an example, this spring Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools acquired 98 Blue Bird propane autogas school buses. The move was considered the nation’s largest single order of propane autogas school buses by a school district. The largest order by a contractor was Student Transportation Inc.’s acquisition of more than 400 propane buses for a new contract in Nebraska in 2012.
Blue Bird’s propane buses utilize ROUSH CleanTech’s liquid propane autogas system. Horlock said that Blue Bird’s work with ROUSH has been a “true partnership.” For instance, staff from both companies make sales calls, and ROUSH collaborates with Blue Bird dealers to provide comprehensive customer training for drivers and service technicians.
In 2010, Blue Bird officials made what they called a “difficult decision”: shuttering the company’s north Georgia facility, located in LaFayette.
The plant had been in operation since 1988 and employed about 350 people. Blue Bird’s Type C school bus body assembly, which had been the north Georgia plant’s duty, was relocated to the Fort Valley headquarters, which is in central Georgia.
The move came amid a tough U.S. economic climate and after several years of declining school bus sales in the overall market. Blue Bird officials said at the time that moving the north Georgia facility’s operations to Fort Valley would centralize all production, technical staff and services and would bolster efficiency.
“Unfortunately, we had to close a plant, but it was a great opportunity for us to become more efficient,” Horlock said during the recent interview.
Blue Bird also made big investments in manufacturing technology and revised the layout of the production line at the main Fort Valley facility to further increase capacity and efficiency. Additionally, company officials said that Blue Bird’s 2009 joint venture with Micro Bird provided greater production capacity in Fort Valley and a “first-class” Type A bus for Blue Bird customers.
Also in Fort Valley is an additional plant where Blue Bird fabricates the manufacturing materials for its buses: seat frames, steps, sheet metal panels, bumpers, etc. Blue Bird acquired that plant in 2008.
Horlock said that the fabrication operation is “a real strength for us. It’s more competitive for us to do it here [in Fort Valley]. We’re able to control quality.”
Drawing on experience
With a workforce of about 1,500 people, Blue Bird is a major employer in the region. Staff members hail from more than 40 of Georgia’s 159 counties. Since 2010, Blue Bird has added 200 full-time jobs.
Beyond the sheer quantity, a noteworthy aspect of the workforce is its longevity. According to Horlock, the average tenure of Blue Bird employees is almost 20 years. He said this experience is critical, considering the complexity of the buses they’re building.
Having the whole company — executive, finance, engineering, HR, marketing, manufacturing, etc. — centralized in Fort Valley is advantageous in many ways, Horlock noted.
“We’re all here under one roof. We’re a very close team,” he said. “We meet with every customer that comes through this plant. … If a customer has a great idea, we’ll implement it next week.”
On the product improvement front, last year Blue Bird introduced a new bus window that is designed to be easier for children to operate and to prevent the intrusion of dust. The company also redesigned its All American buses for model year 2014 with multiple new features and improvements.
“Our engineering group is constantly looking at new ways to do things,” Horlock said, adding, “Our customers value the fact that we are the only manufacturer that builds a purpose-built school bus. ... As a result, we offer many exclusive and unique features that our customers want and value.”
Blue Bird’s chaplain supports staff, families
Since its founding in 1927, Blue Bird has continually had a chaplain on staff. That’s in keeping with the company’s Christian principles that were instilled by founder Albert Luce and his family.
“The Luce family made a covenant: keep God at the center of the company,” says Jay Jones, who has served as Blue Bird’s corporate chaplain for the past eight years.
In a recent interview at Blue Bird’s Fort Valley headquarters — where a sign declares “God is our refuge and strength” (from Psalm 46:1) — Jones discussed how he ministers to employees and their families.
Every two weeks, Jones holds voluntary nondenominational chapel services for both the morning shift and the night shift. The services often cover topical issues, such as personal finances and substance abuse. Jones has brought in notable guest speakers, including Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Yankee baseball star Bobby Richardson.
Jones also organizes staff cookouts, leads volunteer efforts (such as with Ronald McDonald House), offers private counseling services and visits staff members and their family members in the hospital. If an employee has a death in the family, Blue Bird will send flowers, and Jones will likely be at the funeral.
“Whatever they need, we’re going to be there for them,” Jones said. “If you take care of the employees, then they’ll take care of the business.”
Take a 'virtual tour' of Blue Bird
To see more photos from Blue Bird’s Fort Valley facilities, click here.
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