A strong leader with an exceptional ability to build successful teams that drive growth, Charlie Bruce, the senior vice president of National Express, has helped hundreds of school districts with their transportation needs over the course of his nearly four-decade career.
Bruce’s initial work experience was on his family’s farm in Illinois, where his father and grandfather instilled in him the importance of hard work, ethics, and “surrounding yourself with the right people,” his wife, Jennifer Hickey Bruce, president and consultant of CCi consulting, told School Bus Fleet. They also trained him to be a mechanic.
Taking that invaluable skill and know-how to his first job outside the family business at a tractor manufacturer, he aspired to a leadership role. Ever since, Bruce became known for leading multiple teams to success.
His career has taken him to senior-level positions at the largest transportation providers in the U.S., including chief operating officer roles at two of North America’s largest pupil transportation companies: First Student and National Express.
For his tireless devotion to safe student transportation and his many accomplishments in building and improving school bus companies, SBF has named Charlie Bruce its 2020 Contractor of the Year.
Bruce had expected to take over his family’s hog and cattle farm after graduating from college, but needed to quickly shift gears when his parents sold it to retire in Florida.
Instead, he began work as a technician at J.I. Case, a tractor manufacturer in central Illinois. He was later approached by Ryder Truck, Jennifer said, where he proved his versatility and flexibility, starting as a technician and then serving as safety director, account executive, and eventually district manager, over his 20 years with the company. Then came an executive-level opportunity: Bruce was recruited to truck rental and leasing logistics company Ruan Transportation as its vice president of operations in 2001.
To take on this list of positions at these companies, he relocated to several different cities across the U.S., including Milwaukee, Seattle, and Dallas.
Bruce stayed in Dallas and embarked on his career in pupil transportation when he was recruited to First Group, parent company of First Student, in 2005 as the vice president of sales and marketing. He rose through the ranks there to the role of chief operating officer and was instrumental in its expansion when First Student acquired Laidlaw Transit Inc., the largest school bus contractor in North America, followed by First Student, in 2007.
He left First Student — and Dallas — in 2010, moved to New York, and two years later became the chief operating officer, supervising approximately 28,000 employees at National Express, where he stayed — the first time around — through 2015.
That same year, he founded Transportation Advisory Group, a New York-based student transportation consulting firm, but returned to National Express in June 2019. Gary Waits, the school bus company’s CEO of school bus transportation, asked Bruce to re-join the team and train and consult on special projects.
Natural Team Builder
Bruce was lured back, he says, by the prospect of working with a group of longtime colleagues he deeply respects.
“When Gary told me they wanted to grow their customer base, it sounded exciting,” Bruce says. “It was getting the old team back together again.”
Besides Waits, who is his supervisor, his coworkers include other former colleagues from National Express and First Student, such as Carey Paster, John Elliott, John BeGasse, and Liz Sanchez.
Since rejoining National Express, Bruce has focused on assembling the most seasoned and experienced sales team in the industry.
“First and foremost, I surround myself with the best people I can,” Bruce says. “I always enjoyed driving sales with an experienced team.”
His team’s mission is to fuel profitable growth, leveraging their substantial experience and industrywide relationships, fulfilling the company’s promise to provide the safest, reliable, and most cost-effective student transportation.
“At National Express, our overall focus is to be the trusted partner of choice with the most thoroughly screened, trained, and monitored drivers on the road,” Bruce says, adding that there is now a DriveCam aboard each of the company’s nearly 24,000 buses.
Bruce sees his biggest success as leading teams not by telling them what to do, but instead what needs to be done.
“People will surprise you with their ingenuity when you take this approach, and are much more engaged in the outcome,” he says.
In his current position, Bruce mainly enjoys generating growth through bidding, conversions, and acquisitions.
“What can be more fun than driving growth and celebrating each win?” he says.
This bid season alone, he notes that he and his team added nearly 800 buses to National Express’s portfolio before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Waits, who was also Bruce’s colleague at First Group, attests to his hardworking nature.
“Charlie is a guy you’d want on your team in calm waters but even more so in rough waters,” Waits says. “He will roll up his sleeves and help in any way he can.”
No less important to him, Bruce says, is ensuring safe special-needs transportation.
“Over my career, I have toured literally hundreds of school bus operations and schools. I’ve met with parents, school boards, superintendents, and other school officials, and the emphasis placed on our most vulnerable riders can never be taken for granted,” he adds.
Waits adds that Bruce’s genuine quality makes him especially adept at counseling customers.
“I have always appreciated Charlie’s candor and know our customers have as well,” Waits adds. “He is known to be a straight shooter. … Our customers trust Charlie.”
Todd Monteferrario, president of South Downs Consulting Group, says that when he and Bruce spearheaded a project in 2008 to introduce the U.S. school bus transportation model to the United Kingdom, Bruce played a key role in putting everyone at ease.
Also a colleague of Bruce’s from First Student, Monteferrario notes that the visits to the U.K. included members of the U.S. Congress as well as state government officials, school district officials, and local operations teams.
“Charlie was masterful at making everyone feel comfortable in the presence of a high-ranking member of the U.K. government,” Monteferrario says.
“Charlie is a guy you’d want on your team in calm waters, but even more so in rough waters. He will roll up his sleeves and help in any way he can.”
— Gary Waits, CEO, National Express
Serving Beyond Sales
Over the past decade, Bruce has served on the board of directors for the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) and the New York School Bus Contractors Association (NYSBCA).
Bruce joined the NSTA board of directors in 2009 as a representative of First Student.
“It was a great learning experience and allowed me to discuss industry trends with some of the greatest minds in student transportation,” he says.
Three years later, Bruce also joined the NYSBCA’s board, representing National Express and Durham School Services.
Phil Vallone, president of Rolling V Bus Corp., who both competed with and worked with Bruce in the Catskill region of New York for more than 10 years and served with Bruce on the NYSBCA board, recalls that “when Charlie spoke, people listened.”
“He commands respect out of his years of service and industry knowledge,” Vallone adds.
Environmental, Special-Needs Advocate
Bruce volunteers locally as a member of the Lake George Association in Lake George, N.Y., which aims to improve the lake’s water quality. He and his family also host underprivileged children from New York City at their lakeside home in the Adirondacks through the Fresh Air Fund.
Additionally, Bruce and his family sponsor a basketball team of special-needs and general education students at an upstate New York school district every year and take part in an annual clothing drive for its special-needs department.
Bruce contends that the pandemic presents the challenge of myriad uncertainties to pupil transportation, including how much in-person instruction schools will be able to offer, the number of students requiring transportation, and whether there will be sufficient assets to provide the necessary trips.
Added to that is the issue of driver shortage that persisted well before the pandemic, Bruce says.
“Senior-aged drivers may choose not to return to driving a bus for fear of exposure to coronavirus, and who would blame them?” he adds. “We are working on several solutions, and will be in a good place when it’s time to get back to whatever the new normal may be.”