Donald Fowler bought his first school bus in 1975 from his father’s International Harvester dealership. More than 30 years later, Fowler owns 28 buses and has managed to grow Fowler Bus Lines Inc., in Richmond, Mo., into a flourishing family business.

“My family is a big part of the business,” says Fowler, who is president of Fowler Bus. His wife, Mary, is office manager, and he credits her with making sure all of the routes run smoothly. His three children — McKenzie, 17; Kyle, 19; and Jason, 31 — also do their part to help out. “My youngest son eventually wants to get more buses and expand,” Fowler says.

Fowler considers himself lucky to have so much support, especially since he runs two other successful companies in addition to his contracting service. Operating out of the same office as Fowler Bus are a packaged ice company and a surplus company.

The bus company began in 1982, but when Fowler began feeling the effects of consolidation and lost a bus contract to a larger company in 1986, he decided he needed to broaden his business interests. “I wasn’t going to have all my eggs in one basket,” he admits.

Though Fowler did not plan for the packaged ice business to get as big as it did (he sells 1.5 million bags annually), he says finding time to manage all three businesses is not a problem. “It all works out. I have a routine,” he says. “When school’s in, we take care of that until 8:30 or 9 a.m., until everything calms down.” After that, Fowler has time to tend to his other businesses until school lets out again. The bus company remains his primary business, serving one school district in Missouri —the Richmond R-16 School District — with six full-time employees and 30 part-time bus drivers (including Fowler, who often fills in as a sub driver}.

While Fowler has his hands dipped into a variety of businesses, it is for his contributions to the school bus industry that he received SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s Contractor of the Year award on July 24 at the National School Transportation Association’s (NSTA) 42nd annual convention in Lake Tahoe, Nev. He is the 39th recipient of the award.

He knows his business
There is no doubt that Fowler is devoted to the school bus industry. He is currently secretary-treasurer of NSTA, where he has been on the board more than 10 years. He is also legislative chair and educational workshop chair for the Missouri School Bus Contractors Association, and is involved with the National Association for Pupil Transportation and Missouri Association for Pupil Transportation.

Fowler says he contributes so much time to these associations because “you get to know your business. The associations know the laws, they know the regulations, and they help you run your business.”

Fowler says he relies on these associations to help him work through some of the tougher challenges he faces as a contractor. His biggest challenge these days is finding drivers and training and testing them. The bus company was also hit with the rising costs of fuel, but per a clause in its contract with the school district, the district picked up some of the costs.

New technology is also proving to be a bit of a challenge for Fowler, who is awed by all of the technology that now goes into buses. “It’s unbelievable the technology we have now. Some very smart people are needed in the shop to make things run,” he says. “It’s very challenging, and I like challenges.”

When Fowler is able to squeeze some free time into his otherwise busy schedule, he enjoys fishing on the pond and lake on his property. He also spends time on his 80-acre farm, where he’s raised Angus cattle for about 10 years.

Leslie Davis is a freelance writer in Davis, Calif.