Kevin Bangston, president and CEO of Thomas Built Buses, says the ongoing transition to electric...

Kevin Bangston, president and CEO of Thomas Built Buses, says the ongoing transition to electric is one of the biggest changes he foresees in the school bus industry, in addition to the development of new safety technologies.

Photo courtesy Daimler Trucks North America

Kevin Bangston, a former chief financial officer for Thomas Built Buses (TBB), is receiving a warm welcome back to the school bus OEM after assuming the role of president and CEO last month.

Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), the parent company of TBB, made the announcement about Bangston's appointment following TBB’s former president and CEO Caley Edgerly’s transition into the role of general manager, operations planning and quality, at DTNA, in mid-April.

Bangston, a 20-year veteran of DTNA, began his career at the company in corporate finance before moving over to the school bus business in 2005. Since then, he has held multiple positions at DTNA, from international leadership roles in Germany, Southeast Asia, and Japan, to his most recent assignment as general manager of distribution network development.

In this interview with School Bus Fleet, Bangston details the overlap in his experiences within the school bus and trucking industries, advancements in vehicle electrification, and his predictions for school bus sales post-pandemic.

SBF: Congratulations on your new role as Thomas Built Buses’ president and CEO. Tell us about your most recent position as Daimler Trucks North America’s general manager, distribution network development. What were your responsibilities, and how long did you serve in that role?

Kevin Bangston: I returned to the U.S. in late 2018 to assume the role of general manager, distribution network development at Daimler Trucks North America, so I’ve been in that position for about two and half years. It’s an assignment I enjoyed very much as it included responsibility for coordinating all growth opportunities with our Freightliner and Western Star dealers, including new dealership openings, expansions of current locations, and providing general, ongoing support to our dealers. One of the things I was most proud of in this role was the fact that our Elite Support certified dealers understood and supported the need to significantly increase their service bay capacity. In total, their investment is bringing about a 12% increase in service capacity in a two-year time period — meaning that our dealers are committed to being properly equipped to help our customers achieve maximum uptime and efficiency. The Thomas Built Buses Platinum Support program is mirrored after the Freightliner and Western Star Elite Support program, and I’m very much looking forward to building on the already solid foundation the TBB team has created.

You have worked for Thomas Built Buses before — as chief financial officer from 2005 through 2008. How would you say your experience in the trucking and school bus worlds have been different and how have they been similar?

You’re absolutely right that my past experience included three great years at Thomas Built Buses previously followed by an opportunity to spend some time working on the truck side in Germany, and then on multiple assignments in Asia, including leading Mitsubishi Fuso Bus.

As far as similarities between the various sides of our business, whether hauling goods or people, our vehicles are tools for some of the most awesome jobs out there. Our purpose statement at Daimler Trucks and Buses is that we are “For All Who Keep the World Moving,” and while this is a great piece of corporate wordsmithing, all of us had the opportunity to really put that purpose to the test in the past 16 months. We saw trucks playing a crucial role in delivering food, medicine, and other essential goods across America. It was our customers who quite literally kept the world moving, and it was our job along with our dealers to, in turn, keep them moving.

This is just as important for the customers at Thomas Built Buses. Even with most districts working remotely last year, we saw school districts, transportation providers and school bus drivers step in and find additional ways to support the kids — by delivering lunches, by driving buses to neighborhoods without Wi-Fi and parking there to provide a mobile hotspot, and by simply boosting morale of the kids stuck at home. So, whether moving goods or people — all of our customers are truly keeping the world moving.

What do you like most about the pupil transportation industry?

The fact that we are so unique — commercial transportation is an industry of unique products and niche applications, but none has as much recognition or significance as the yellow school bus. In fact, there are lots of Daimler business units and products all over the globe, but a yellow school bus is only seen here in North America — nowhere else in the world — and all of our colleagues abroad recognize the significance of what we do. And that’s because we’re transporting the most important resource out there — North America’s schoolchildren. In addition, I know from my past experience at Thomas Built Buses that we are supporting an incredibly committed and passionate group of people charged with pupil transportation.

The school transportation industry is quickly adopting electrification, in part due to more funding, such as the Volkswagen (VW) mitigation settlement funds and state funds becoming available. How does this compare with electrification in the trucking industry and what could the school bus industry learn from it as it moves forward with electrifying fleets?

Across the board, new technology costs money and so incentives really have to be in play to help offset the acquisition costs. Certainly, everyone likes the idea of seeing school buses go electric, as their dedicated, repeatable routes make them a natural fit for electrification, so it’s understandable that a lot of monies are being allocated to this purpose.

There’s also incentive money behind the big Class 8 trucks to accomplish the same, but trucks have different use cases and the early candidates have to fit in context of current capability. That means starting with return to hub-style operations — drayage, local pick-up and delivery, and food and beverage distribution. In lead up to start of production of [DTNA's] electric trucks in late 2022, we’ve deployed 40 pre-series Class 8 and Class 6/7 trucks to customers to use in the real world and help expedite our development testing.

The takeaway for the school bus industry that we’ve learned from deploying those 40 early versions of [DTNA's electric] trucks to over 30 customers is that you have to start thinking early about charging infrastructure. The process of installing the needed chargers can take up to a year, so if you’re preparing to add electric buses to your fleet, you can engage our Thomas Built Buses consultant team, the Electric Bus Authority, early in the process to help with route assessment, planning for charging, and applying for grants or incentive money.

In terms of school bus sales, do you also see growth in other fuels, such as propane and gasoline? What have recent trends shown in trucking?

Battery electric technology is coming along so quickly that I think we will see it become the predominant technology for the school bus segment in the next couple of decades. That technology may not be 100% appropriate for every application or district right now, which is why, diesel-powered, gas-powered, and CNG-powered buses will remain a part of the product mix. The good news is these buses are efficient, they are reliable, and they offer a great value proposition. For trucks, we’re very much expecting a similar dynamic and perhaps an even longer time horizon for transition from fossil fuels given the myriad use cases under which trucks have to perform, the need for a nationwide charging network, and the need for additional electrical grid resiliency.

What changes do you see in the coming years for the school bus industry?

Certainly, the transition to electric is the biggest change that we foresee in the industry, but in addition, the proliferation of new safety technologies is something that will continue to shape how school buses operate. As a company, we are continually looking at ways to make school buses smarter, safer, and easier to maintain and operate. I foresee that as an industry, we will see significant change over the next 10 years in terms of primary fuel/power source and the features that make school buses even safer.

How would you assess school bus industry market conditions for the second half of 2021? How about for 2022?

I won’t call the market strong currently, but it is certainly stable and active. I’ve read about and seen proof points that some of the worst projections for tax revenue shortfalls from last year’s stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders haven’t come to fruition. In fact, there are some municipalities who came in with substantial surpluses last year. I don’t think that immediately translates to exorbitant spending by local and state government, but it does mean that the ordering activity we’re seeing is not what we originally feared it may be. In fact, now that we’re beginning to see nearly the entire country reopen and services-related activity resume, I’m cautiously optimistic about future economic prosperity and I think that bodes well for our industry in the years to come.

Are there any upcoming projects/initiatives at Thomas Built Buses you are able to share?

As you know, at Thomas Built Buses we’ve already delivered more than 50 battery electric Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouleys with many more planned to be delivered this year, and early feedback is outstanding. We’ll continue to keep our foot on the accelerator, and you’ll see more Jouley electric school buses on the road. You’ll also hear more about one of the most interesting aspects of Jouley — it’s vehicle-to-grid capability, which has helped attract the interest of utilities that are, in some instances, finding ways to help support their local school districts offset acquisition costs in exchange for energy storage. It’s a win for the district, it’s a win for the utility, and it’s a win for the students.