Humble Start on Road to Success
B and B Transportation Inc.
It all started with one stubborn bus.
These days, B and B Transportation Inc. serves 30 schools throughout Connecticut with a fleet of 61 school buses. But back in 1989, Beth and Brad Cohen’s new business venture was off to a shaky start.
The two had married in April of that year. A few months later, a local elementary school offered Brad a one-bus contract. So with the $2,500 that the newlyweds had in the bank, Brad went out and bought a $2,500 bus.
“He was so excited to bring it home to show me,” Beth recalls. “It was nice — as nice as a $2,500 bus can be.”
Once Beth had looked it over, she asked Brad to get it out of the driveway because it was blocking their cars. But when Brad attempted to start the bus, it refused to comply.
“We used all our money to purchase the bus, and we didn’t have anything left for repairs,” Beth says. “Somehow we managed, and this was the beginning of B and B Transportation.” Despite the initial technical difficulty, the company has maintained an outstanding record in the state’s once-a-year school bus inspections. Brad says that the B and B team has a good working relationship with state inspectors and actually looks forward to their visits.
Success in this area is achieved through a preventive maintenance program of lube, oil and filter service every 3,000 miles, a comprehensive safety service every three months and brake measurement every 6,000 miles or six months.
“Basically, the entire fleet rotates through the garage at least once a month,” Brad says.
Beth and Brad, who run B and B as president and vice president, respectively, say that they rely on a team of dedicated managers to keep the operation running smoothly. Fleet manager Steve Altschuler, safety and training manager Jeri McEwen and office manager Carol Frame have served the company for a total of about 22 years.
“We couldn’t do this alone,” Beth says. “They are a huge benefit to us, and our drivers are phenomenal.”
The first driver hired at B and B is still with the company today, and there’s a core group of drivers that have been there for 10 to 15 years.
Still, the driver shortage that plagues pupil transportation operations across the nation is no stranger here. Beth says that the unemployment rate in Connecticut is fairly low now, which adds to the challenge of finding drivers. Advertising in print and through word of mouth help in the search. Also, B and B has a training program that runs continually, so when a candidate meets the criteria to work there, he or she begins the program immediately rather than having to wait for one to start.
“Part of the challenge is that licensing for a school bus driver takes such a long time,” Beth says. “We have to do everything we can to keep their interest perked during the training process.”
To keep customers happy, the company commits itself to superior service, paying attention to such details as drivers being courteous and buses arriving on time.
“Those are the little things that our customers appreciate; it’s why they keep coming back,” Beth says. “Brad and I from the beginning said that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right.”
— THOMAS MCMAHON
Students transported daily: 2,000
Schools served: 30
Transportation staff: 62
Average driver wage: $13/hour
A cohesive atmosphere marks the transportation department at Durant Independent School District.
Going Beyond the Usual
Durant Independent School District
Durant Independent School District’s transportation department has a much larger charter than just moving its own students to and from school and activity trips. “We’re a small school district, but we don’t have to think small,” says Transportation Director Billy Whittenburg.
Using 34 school buses, it transports 1,250 students daily to the district’s seven schools, but it also provides a host of services to other school districts and organizations in southeastern Oklahoma.
For example, it transports hundreds of high school students from several local school districts to Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where they take courses to prepare for the rigors of college. “When they graduate high school, the hope is that they will go on to college,” he says. “You can chase your dreams if you can get an education.”
Eight years ago, Whittenburg set up a program to transport children to licensed daycare operators. “If they’re in a daycare program, I’ll transport them to wherever they are,” he says. The daycare operator is charged a flat fee for the transportation service. These days he transports 250 daycare riders to 14 centers.
Because the closest motorcoach charter company is 90 miles away, the district also provides charter services during the summer to church groups and summer camps. This allows the district to provide bus drivers with summer work and to generate some additional revenue. “My logic is that we have $2 million worth of buses sitting idle in the summer,” Whittenburg says. “It’s better to keep them running.”
Durant’s buses also serve another critical function: emergency evacuation. It’s department policy that drivers have to report to work in the event of a disaster. “We have used our buses to evacuate nursing homes and apartment complexes in a tornado,” he says. “We’re the only organization within a two-hour drive that has the resources to move large numbers of people.”
The bus garage, staffed by two technicians and three assistants, also extends its services beyond district boundaries. It maintains buses for other school districts, as well as private schools and non-profit organizations. It also services the 26 Head Start buses operated by the Choctaw Nation, which is headquartered in Durant.
Whittenburg, who started as a district bus driver 29 years ago, divides his fleet into two branches — route and activity. The older buses in the fleet are used for route service and the newer for activity trips. Of the 34 buses in the fleet, 10 are dedicated activity buses and are equipped with air conditioning, a necessity on long trips in the sometimes-blazing Oklahoma sun.
When buses reach the end of their useful life, they are not sold. “We dismantle the buses and take those old parts,” Whittenburg says. “It’s a pretty good system. I haven’t bought any new lenses in six years.”
Although turnover is high, morale in the transportation department is good. “This is a college town, so a lot of our drivers are college students,” Whittenburg explains. “When they graduate, they go on to bigger and better things.” The operation is small enough that he can act as director, dispatcher and payroll supervisor. He also helps to maintain a cohesive atmosphere. “Everybody comes to work together and we don’t leave until the last driver is back,” he says. “We don’t have a union, but we are united.”
— STEVE HIRANO
Students transported daily: 1,250
Schools served: 7
Total students in district: 3,300
Area of service: 45 square miles
Average driver wage: $10.30/hour
Several members of Jackson R-II School District's transportation team have driven for 20 to 30 years, while one has driven for more than 40 years.
Fleet Gets ‘A’s for Safety
Jackson R-II School District
Operating a rural fleet where 60 percent of the roads are gravel presents certain challenges, especially in keeping buses in top shape. Still, for the past eight years of state inspections, the Jackson R-II School District in Jackson, Mo., has earned a 100 percent score five times. “All it takes is one light out and you don’t get a perfect score,” says Carol Woods, director of transportation.
Having served for nine years as transportation director and 23 years total in the department, Woods is well equipped to help her fleet get good grades. But Woods says that the department’s success is due to “the dedication of each person in the department. We are a transportation family,” she says.
Another of the operation’s strengths is its strong ties with administrators, principals and teachers.
“Our working relationship with Carol and her fleet is outstanding,” Superintendent Ron Anderson says. “They really promote safety.”
Practices to boost safety, efficiency and morale include a monthly safety meeting. Drivers are trained in such topics as CPR and first aid, child safety restraint systems and wheelchair tiedowns. Incentives for attending driver safety meetings include prizes and snacks. All safety meetings are filmed for any drivers who miss them.
During National School Bus Safety Week, drivers go to all K-5 classes and teach school bus safety, both inside the classroom and out. Outside, two drivers rope off the danger zones. Students then hold the ropes so they can see the danger zones around big buses. This is followed by a short ride and instruction on how to exit and cross safely after the ride. Other safety aids include workbooks with bus rules, worksheets on bus safety and a picture of the danger zone.
Woods says that turnover is low. One driver has been there more than 40 years, and several have driven for 20 to 30 years. All birthdays are posted on the calendar each month, and the department has a Thanksgiving lunch and a Christmas breakfast each year.
Still, having enough drivers to keep runs covered can be difficult at times, but the department overcomes it with teamwork. “If we have a sick driver or one that uses a personal day, it can be challenging,” Woods says. “During these days, everyone drives, including me. We always make it through the tough days because everyone works together.”
For the fleet, special equipment includes tinted windows, heated mirrors, PA systems, electric doors, white roofs and air conditioning on all special-needs buses. Additionally, all of the buses are equipped with surveillance cameras, which help with student discipline issues, Woods says.
Bus maintenance includes lube and inspection every 3,000 miles, with oil changes every 5,000. The three mechanics also have to handle school district tractors and mowers. Still, they are able to deal with eight buses at a time.
In November, Woods became a nationally certified director of pupil transportation. Currently, she is a director in the Missouri Association for Pupil Transportation and president of the organization’s St. Louis region.
Woods and her people know the road taken can be rough as gravel, but working together makes life smoother for everyone.
“Every day, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work for our school district’s bus fleet,” Woods says. “Together, we make a difference in the lives of our students.”
— LYNN TILTON
Students transported daily: 2,990
Schools served: 9
Total students in district: 4,576
Transportation staff: 72
Area of service: 280 square miles
Average driver wage: $29.40 per route
The transportation team at Jefferson County Public Schools works hard to keep more than 1,000 buses running a total of 86,000 miles per day.
Reliable Service — Rain or Shine
Jefferson County Public Schools
Many think of Kentucky as a little bit of heaven on earth. Yet those driving buses for Jefferson County Public Schools know there are times when the conditions don’t quite seem divine.
“Temperatures range from 100 to zero,” says Rick Caple, director of transportation. “We get 45 inches of rain and average 15 inches of snow per year. We get a lot of ice and snow combinations and some closed streets due to high water.”
The service area ranges from metro to rural, and geography consists mainly of rolling hills with some steep areas.
Fortunately, regardless of the weather — or traffic level — driver vigilance makes a crucial difference in safety. New drivers get 70 hours of training before they start transporting students. Because of this vigilance, only one out of four bus incidents are blamed on the bus drivers.
The district’s buses put in 86,000 miles and 47,000 stops a day. Those numbers show why they have an accident review board that considers each driver error incidence. Drivers may be dismissed if student injury results or if they begin building up a history of minor accidents.
Caple has 15 years of experience in school transportation, with 10 of those for Jefferson County, and he is a past president of the Kentucky Association for Pupil Transportation. He has earned considerable praise for his dedication to the job, as district Superintendent Stephen Daeschner points out: “When it comes to transportation, I absolutely depend on Rick Caple.”
But Caple himself will tell you that credit should go to the drivers and the maintenance staff. For instance, he says that Ike Pinkston, who is director of vehicle maintenance and has 23 years of hands-on experience, has been instrumental in extending the life of the department’s buses, which are replaced on a 15-year schedule. “Ninety percent make that schedule,” Caple says.
High morale among employees helps keep the buses running. “Some drivers have been driving for 50 years,” Caple says. Each of the district’s 13 bus compounds hosts a Thanksgiving feast and a Christmas party for all members of that compound. Other morale boosters include excellent pay rates, benefits, working conditions and training.
Additionally, drivers enjoy and do well in bus roadeo competitions. “Twice in the last three years, Jefferson County drivers have won the Kentucky State Roadeo,” Caple says.
The department’s challenges include transporting 3- and 4-year-olds on a daily basis and supplying air conditioning for buses carrying special-needs students. “We work really hard to meet all challenges,” Caple says. “We spend a lot of time with communities and parents, making sure we are meeting their transportation needs.”
Raising money for a local charity plays a role in parent satisfaction, especially when considering that in the past 15 years, the district’s transportation department has raised and donated $500,000 into the community.
Thanks to those involved in transporting students, no matter the weather, Jefferson County is indeed a little bit of heaven on earth.
— LYNN TILTON
Students transported daily: 60,000
Schools served: 152
Total students in district: 98,000
Transportation staff: 1,100
Area of service: 367 square miles
Average driver wage: $17.50/hour
Messalonskee School District's fleet includes 33 school buses. The buses cover more than 170 square miles to serve six schools and 1,700 students.
Growth Has Dramatic Impact
Messalonskee School District
Lennie Goff, transportation director at Messalonskee School District in Oakland, Maine, became a bus driver for the district 19 years ago and figured he’d stay for one year. That year has stretched into nearly two decades.
“I discovered it was my niche,” he says. “I enjoyed being with the kids, and one thing led to another.”
Goff, who was named supervisor in 1989 and then director in 1994, says he’s seen a lot of growth in the area during his tenure. “In the last couple of decades, it’s gone from a farming community to bedroom community and suburbia. We went from being one of the smallest districts in the area to one of the largest,” he says.
That expansion has had a dramatic impact on the bus operation. “We’ve gone from a mom-and-pop operation to big business,” Goff says. The growth forced him to abandon the pin-and-string method of routing and to embrace computerization. He chose VersaTrans routing and scheduling software and has been impressed with the results. “We cut 22,000 miles the first year,” he says. “We paid for the software the first year we used it.”
The district operates 33 buses to transport 1,700 students. It employs three full-time mechanics to service its own fleet, as well as 14 buses for a neighboring district “We think of all 47 buses as our fleet,” Goff says.
Although he’s proud of his fleet, Goff’s even prouder of his employees. “You could have the best equipment in the world, but if you don’t have the best employees, it won’t work,” he says. “They make the fleet.” He also credits the district’s administration for giving him the tools he needs to run a top-notch operation.
Safety is a particular strength at Messalonskee. Two years ago, Goff hired a safety coordinator to fill in the “missing piece” of his program. He says he knew that the operation was good, but there was still room to improve driver training. “Now I feel like we’re on the cutting edge,” he says.
Goff is a strong advocate of regionalization and has been an influential force in a five-district alliance in central Maine. The alliance works together on bulk purchasing and also shares best practices, such as routing and scheduling, maintenance and driver training.
“Through the efforts of Lennie and his staff, this group of five relatively large school districts has significantly improved the efficiency of their transportation operations while improving the safety and quality of their transportation services,” says Harvey Boatman, pupil transportation specialist for the Maine Department of Education.
Goff is also a strong proponent of networking and has been a member of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation for the past 15 years. His participation has been much more robust over the past three years. He became a member of the association’s board of directors in 2005 and currently serves as vice president.
Like most exemplary transportation programs, Messalonskee’s has a deep-seated sense of family. “We work, we laugh and we cry together,” Goff says. “When one of us hurts, we all hurt. This is a team effort. That shines above everything else.”
— STEVE HIRANO
Students transported daily: 1,700
Schools served: 6
Total students in district: 2,578
Area of service: 172 square miles
Average driver wage: $14.32/hour
An open door policy encourages transportation department staff at Oceanside Unified School District to share ideas that could benefit the operation.
‘Team Concepts’ Tackle Challenges
Oceanside Unified School District
It’s not just the favorable climate and, as the city name indicates, proximity of the Pacific that keep staff satisfied and working conditions composed at Oceanside Unified School District.
Dennis Smarsty, director of transportation, says that what he calls “team concepts” in his department as well as throughout the district are the foundation of their success. As an example, if a driver is headed to pick up students at a school site and gets stuck in traffic, other drivers will step up and help cover the mission to prevent the students from being late.
Another team concept is an open door policy — “and I mean open door,” Smarsty emphasizes — that allows everyone to share ideas that may be constructive to maintaining an advanced level of operation.
“The attitude is that this is not just a job, it is our profession,” Smarsty says.
Smarsty says that Oceanside’s drivers are the third-highest paid in San Diego County, which helps keep morale high. Factoring in the camaraderie and professionalism that pervade the ranks, it’s no surprise that turnover is low. Ten percent of the drivers have been there more than 22 years. The average employment length of drivers is 12 years. And the department’s combined driving experience is more than 850 years.
Drivers hone their craft through a combination of classroom and hands-on training. The Safety and Training section of the transportation department implements weekly instructional meetings for drivers and attendants. Special-needs roadeos are held as part of an annual training program. The department also engages in “Road Rallies,” in which participants follow a series of slightly cryptic instructions to reach a goal location.
Instructor Mary “Mac” McLaughlin says these events sharpen driving skills, knowledge of the area and teamwork between driver and attendant.
“Learning to work together is very important for the success of the department,” McLaughlin says.
The operation’s biggest challenge of late has been budgeting, Smarsty says, particularly because of the increased cost of fuel and the decreased passenger capacity brought on by three-point seat belts, which are required on new school buses in California.
Accordingly, efficiency is a crucial factor. One strategy that Oceanside has employed in this area is consolidating bus stops, allowing the buses to maximize seating capacity and still get to school on time. Also helping to boost efficiency is input from drivers and dispatchers, who constantly communicate issues in routing, traffic congestion and other areas.
Though the district has recently undergone dramatic budget cuts, Smarsty says that the budget seems to be getting back to a more stable operating level. This has allowed his department to create an effective bus replacement program that will be in full effect within the next two years.
“Our fleet’s average age is nine years,” Smarsty says. “With the purchase of 13 new replacement buses in June 2007, our fleet age will be 7 years.”
Oceanside’s fleet is made up of transit-style and conventional buses from a variety of manufacturers. Thirty-five percent of the buses are powered by compressed natural gas. Thirty-six percent of the diesel-powered buses are equipped with particulate traps. Smarsty says that these statistics underscore the district’s commitment to “doing our part to maintain a clean air environment.”
— THOMAS MCMAHON
Students transported daily: 5,700
Schools served: 25
Total students in district: 20,400
Transportation staff: 94
Area of service: 66 square miles
Average driver wage: $20.64/hour
Orange County Public Schools' fleet is configured with some of the top technology available today, including a state-of-the-art radio system that is connected to the county's public safety network.
Technology Pioneers of the ‘Lightning Capital’ Frontier
Orange County Public Schools
Orange County Public Schools’ history is as vibrant as those famed Floridian sunrises and sets. The nation’s 11th largest school district blazes toward the future while remaining true to the county’s founders’ pioneering and forward-thinking spirit.
Frontiersmen and women first staked claim to the subtropical land in the 1840s. They quickly developed a small community and shortly afterward established churches and a means to educate their children. The first school board was formed in 1869.
But the pioneer spirit ran deep, and many migrated onward or to new locations within the settlement. As a deterrent designed to prevent the proliferation of the tiny schools, a law was passed requiring children to attend the nearest school. If the parents failed to comply, they forfeited their right to vote. The deterrent worked, the schools stabilized and grew, and the first “formal” transportation department was launched in the 1900s. The preferred mode of pupil transportation? A horse-drawn cart.
Times have most certainly changed for Orange County Public Schools’ transportation department. The district serves 170 schools, employs 1,745 individuals, operates a 1,473-bus fleet and transports 70,788 of the area’s 177,308 students, who hail from 179 countries and speak 137 different dialects and languages.
Orlando as a community has changed too. The centrally located city is an economic hub attracting national and international tourists. It also attracts its share of unpredictable weather — hurricanes, sudden thunderstorms and at times fatal heat waves.
“We are the lightning capital of the world due to the convergence of Atlantic and Gulf winds,” says T. Arby Creach, the transportation department’s senior administrator. “We can expect tornados any time a thundershower is in the area. Needless to say, all our drivers are trained to deal with these conditions.”
While Creach’s drivers are well prepared to navigate both Orlando’s overcrowded streets and unpredictable weather, according to Creach the visiting tourists are ill-equipped for the task. Traffic accidents are numerous and the norm. As such, student safety and rapid accessibility to emergency assistance is paramount and cutting-edge technology is the superglue that holds it all together.
Currently, the entire fleet is being fitted with GPS devices, providing the drivers the assurance that in an emergency situation the bus’ location is immediately established and help is en route. The fleet is also configured with “state-of-the-art” 700-900 Mhz radios operating on the county public safety network. Fleet managers’ vehicles are configured with wireless, mounted laptop computer systems and a pilot RFID student tracking system is being test-driven.
“We operate the largest and most technologically advanced public transportation system in central Florida,” says Creach. “Our buses travel more than 17 million miles annually. We are an economic powerhouse and a far cry from the meager beginnings of 1869.”
Students transported daily: 70,788
Total students in district: 177,308
Schools served: 170
Transportation staff: 1,745
Area of service: 850 square miles
Average driver wage: $15/hour
The transportation team at Queen Creek Unified School District embraces a family-like philosophy. Pictured are (from left) Dave Pratt, Rudy Perez, Larry Benton, Edd Hennerly and Linda Nuetzman.
Growing Fleet Rooted in Home-Grown Values
Queen Creek Unified School District
Queen Creek, Ariz.
Queen Creek Unified School District’s fleet service manager says her town is no longer Arizona’s best-kept little secret. Linda Nuetzman just may be right.
Nestled in the fertile valley below the San Tan Mountains, Queen Creek is rapidly transforming from its agricultural roots into a booming business community, creating unprecedented growth for the community’s schools and school transportation department.
“We have been experiencing a 20 percent annual growth for the past three years,” says Edd Hennerley, the district’s director of transportation. “We see major changes on a daily basis, from farming operations of a few years ago to major residential and business developments crisscrossing our 44 square miles.”
As such, the district’s biggest challenge is accommodating the town’s — and school district’s — rapid growth. The district has one terminal and one bus bay with parking designed for 25, and yet the fleet has grown to 64. A new terminal is in the design stages, and the groundbreaking is slated for fall 2007.
But despite the town’s rapid growth and subsequently the fleet’s, Hennerley’s team adheres to and maintains an exceptional standard of excellence — the district has had the highest inspection pass rate in the state, per the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
“Our growth demands that we keep the entire fleet on the road,” says Hennerley, “and our staff of three technicians works miracles.”
Queen Creek’s 64-bus fleet comprises a blend of Blue Bird, International and Thomas Built buses, of which 17 are special-needs buses. All of the buses are fitted with air conditioning and sport the Athletic Script lettering denoting district ownership. Hennerley cites safety as the priority issue. As such, the district maintains a top-notch preventative program and carefully selects new purchases.
The district has committed to a high quality fleet, and it honors that commitment. Buses are spec’d with regard to student and driver comfort and vehicle longevity. Excluding the district’s 17 special-needs buses, new buses purchased averaged $104,000 each.
“We have gained the respect of our district personnel as well as our vendors and surrounding districts,” says Hennerley. “It may be right to follow the leader, but we prefer to be the leader in pupil transportation in Arizona.”
Hennerley’s team leads the way in maintaining a small-town, family-esque work environment too. The district shares numerous breakfasts and BBQ luncheons together, and they celebrate the holidays with a potluck. They also attend a three-day motivational conference in Bullhead City and close the year with an annual awards banquet, where in addition to staff being recognized for excellence, the “Oops” award is presented in acknowledgment of the biggest blunder.
“Our philosophy is that we want Queen Creek Schools Transportation to be the best place you have ever worked,” says Hennerley. “We truly are a family.”
— ALISON BLASKO
Students transported daily: 3,000
Total students in district: 4,500
Schools served: 6
Transportation staff: 70
Area of service: 44 square miles
Average driver wage: $13.44/hour
South Panola's transportation director, Robert Chapman, paves the way for excellence by establishing effective partnership teams, as depicted by George Young (front) and Raphael Bledsoe, who work in tandem during daily maintenance inspections.
The Great Communicator
South Panola School District
An effective communicator is difficult to find. An inspirational one with fresh ideas is rare. So when a communicator makes us realize that the words we speak, consume and ultimately digest are as important as the food we eat, and that the ideas we embrace are as important as the actions we take, we snap to attention and listen up.
Ronald Reagan was an effective communicator.
So is Robert Chapman, the transportation director for the South Panola School District in Batesville, Miss.
A former junior high school principal, Chapman has served as the district’s transportation director for the past 14 years. Located just east of the Mississippi Delta, the district services approximately 484 square miles of rural terrain boasting both hills and lowland with temperatures ranging from 25 to 100 degrees. The district’s 88-person, 67-bus transportation department almost-seamlessly shuttles 4,000 of the district’s 5,000 students to and from eight schools.
The key to the district’s smooth, virtually problem-free operation? The man at the helm.
A humble man, Chapman brings fresh ideas to the mix and forges invaluable partnerships. His genuine love for his community and job manifests itself as innovative solutions to age-old problems.
For example, Chapman’s very low turnover rate can be attributed to his decision to place drivers within the specific communities they reside. Most of his drivers know the students they transport, not to mention their parents.
The placement of drivers in their communities also led to more effective behavioral management policies. “The driver hands the written report to the parent, the parent disciplines the child and the majority of the problems are resolved,” says Chapman.
A further incentive fueling appropriate bus behavior is that all students with a perfect year-end record receive wristbands, pencils and rulers with bus rules. Drivers with a disciplinary- and accident-free year receive the coveted inscribed South Panola yellow jacket.
But Chapman’s “mutually-beneficial” incentive programs are not limited to students and his drivers. Many drivers hold traditional 9-to-5 jobs. As such, Chapman created what is akin to a business or employee exchange. Drivers work for Chapman, and in return, they can use their buses for transportation to their day jobs.
To ensure a healthy fleet, Chapman’s shop foreman runs a tight preventative maintenance program, incorporating a thorough 10-point system.
Each bus is checked over by two fuel mechanics daily, and mid-way through the daily runs, Chapman himself personally inspects every vehicle in operation. Additionally, the all-diesel fleet undergoes a 26-point inspection quarterly and 10 percent of the fleet is updated annually.
As such, at the end of the day, Chapman leaves the office with the knowledge of a job well done by all. “I love my job. I get to serve the entire district,” says Chapman. “But I also miss the one-on-one interaction with the students I had when I was principal. That was special, too.”
— ALISON BLASKO
Students transported daily: 4,000
Total students in district: 5,000
Schools served: 8
Transportation staff: 88
Area of service: 484 square miles
Average driver wage: $9/hour
Tom (left) and Jim Hey of Southwest Coaches won the National School Transportation Association's Golden Merit Award in 2005.
Brothers in Busing
Southwest Coaches Inc.
Unlike most brothers, Tom and Jim Hey never fought over Matchbox cars or who was their dad’s favorite while growing up; maybe that’s the secret to their successful business partnership. As president (Tom) and vice president (Jim) of Southwest Coaches Inc., the two brothers have been running the company expertly since gaining ownership in 2000.
Southwest Coaches has been operating for more than 40 years and has been a part of the Hey family for 32. Since the company was owned by Tom and Jim’s uncle Chuck Hey, then by their parents (Marvin and Janet), the Hey brothers grew up with the bus industry. The brothers started working for the company at an early age, and as Tom explains, “We’ve done all aspects of the business, from washing buses and sweeping floors to running the company.” Both have driven the buses as well.
The Hey brothers grew up in Marshall, Minn., attending school in one of the districts they now serve (Marshall Public Schools, along with Jackson County Central School District), and they take their community involvement to heart. They are both members of the local Chamber of Commerce and have established, along with their sisters, a scholarship in their parents’ names to help local students. “We invest in the communities, we buy real estate in the communities, we pay taxes in the communities, we become part of the communities. I live here, I can’t just pick up my toys and go home — I am home,” Tom says.
The Heys are also dedicated to their industry: Tom serves as president of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, and both Tom and Jim are members of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA). In 2005, they were given the NSTA’s Golden Merit Award.
Common to the industry, managing outside factors is always a challenge. In Minnesota, one of the largest factors is the weather. For Southwest Coaches, it’s important that their buses have heating systems that work properly, and they spec the buses with a lot of thermal glass to improve visibility in the winter. Strobe stop arms and reflective tape provide additional safety. To prepare for the unexpected, the company uses a rigorous preventative maintenance program that mimics a state inspection and is run every time a vehicle is serviced.
Southwest Coaches currently operates in four different areas: student transportation, motorcoach charters, motorcoach tours and a full-service travel agency (including airline and cruise packages). When the company opened its doors in 1965, it offered pupil transportation services to the Marshall area. By the time Marvin and Janet Hey bought the company in 1974, the motorcoaches were already in existence. One year later, they began providing motorcoach tours. The leap to a full-service travel agency happened in 1990.
Tom Hey credits the success of Southwest Coaches to this diversity of business and, like many other family-owned companies, to their employees.
“I’ve got 39 school buses; obviously, I can’t drive 39 school buses in a day,” Tom says. “I rely on other people to do their job, and they do it well. We have a fantastic staff; they make the success of the company.”
— MEAGHAN KERINS
School buses: 39
Students transported daily: 1,700
Districts served: 2
Schools served: 11
Total students in districts: 3,500
Total employees: 75