LINDEN, N.J. — From running a milk truck bought with borrowed money and ferrying workers in the post-World War I era to serving thousands of students daily, Villani Bus Co. has grown by leaps and bounds over the last century.
Run by three generations and offering school bus and charter bus transportation, with 175 school buses and a handful of vans and motorcoaches, the school bus company serves dozens of school districts in northern New Jersey and transports over 7,500 students every day. (Villani Bus took the No. 40 spot on School Bus Fleet’s Top Contractors list.)
The business started in 1919, after a trolley strike got Frank Villani Sr., an immigrant from Italy and the company founder, desperately wishing for a ride as he made the long trek home on foot from his job at the Merck factory in Rahway. Villani Sr. looked at the other men who were trudging home exhausted, and got the idea to build a bus and provide transportation to local workers, Courtney Villani, the company’s president, told SBF.
Friends lended Villani Sr. the money to buy an old milk truck. He acquired some park benches and bolted them in. Villani Sr. would drive the truck and call out options for different destinations. He charged a nickel for a ride.
Soon after, Linden Public Schools needed student transportation. Villani Sr. started the first bus route for the district, and has provided local school bus service ever since.
“That’s a big point of pride for us, to have continued service from the first route until now,” Villani said.
Villani Sr.’s oldest son, Diodato Villani, grew up in the business, helping out in the shop starting at age 5, and later working as a mechanic. Diodato returned from college in 1951, and joined the company full time. He became president just five years later and more than doubled the business during the course of his career.
Following in his footsteps, Courtney Villani came aboard in 2001, just after 9/11. (She aided in response efforts as a firefighter in Long Island, New York.) Her father was experiencing some health issues, so she stepped up to help the family business continue.
“My father was the business. He put his life into it,” Villani said. “I felt it deserved the opportunity to continue.” (Diodato Villani passed away in March 2019.)
To get to 100 years, the company has overcome many hurdles.
After 9/11, Villani Bus, along with the rest of the bus industry in the New York area, was hit with insurance fee increases of over 50%, and survived the economic downturn soon after that. Through it all, they kept their doors open and still managed to grow the business. Courtney Villani worked in nearly every department, from dispatch to charter to safety to payroll, often at the same time.
Despite these obstacles, she has managed to double the size of the company and its business since joining the company nearly two decades ago.
Part of what Villani attributes to the company’s success is its core value of hiring local drivers. Not only does that tap into a sense of local pride, but provides more efficient and secure service as well, she said.
“Our [local drivers] have a better understanding of the neighborhood than [a driver from] a place that’s 40 minutes away,” Villani added, noting that they can easily navigate around a street closure, or a garbage truck blocking the street.
She also pointed to the pride that drivers feel when driving in their own town.
“It all ties in to performance and how you take care of other people’s children,” Villani said. “I believe the farther away you get from your own neighborhood, the harder that is to do.”
That leads to another factor in Villani Bus’s success: its drivers and attendants place a premium on taking care of students the way that they would want their own children taken care of. That became apparent during a recent emergency evacuation at Linden High School.
“We didn’t know the reason, but between the drivers in the office and in close proximity, we were able to evacuate the entire school,” Villani recalled.
That included students who were assigned to routes handled by other contractors.
“I was so proud. Our drivers didn’t know what they were walking into, but they hopped in and got our kids picked up,” Villani said. “[They] acted without hesitation to keep our students safe. That’s the true spirit of Villani Bus.”
Additionally, for her outstanding leadership, Villani was named by the networking organization Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners as one of its “Unstoppable Top 25” in 2016.
As it marks 100 years of providing local and nationwide bus service, mainly to students, the company continues to serve its community with pride. Villani Bus employees are active volunteers, a tradition started by Diodato that Courtney has continued.
To highlight its anniversary, employees were invited to collectively volunteer 100 hours to the community in the first 100 days of the company’s 100th year.
“We more than doubled our goal and reached over 200 hours,” Villani said.
Villani Bus is also mailing coupons that customers can apply to their next trip, as well as sending out an award and certificate every month to the 100th customer and the 100th trip.
Moving forward, the company is updating its buses in response to a recent change in state law; as SBF previously reported, New Jersey switched from requiring lap belts to lap-shoulder belts in school buses in 2018.
“That’s a work in progress as vehicles age out and our fleet turns over year by year,” Villani said. The company plans to buy 10 new Blue Bird Type C buses this year as part of a continued effort to update its fleet.