Embracing the need for continuous learning and growth, Paul Vellani has never been one to stick to the status quo, especially when it comes to providing safe student transportation.
As the president of Ohio-based school bus contractor VAT Inc., Vellani credits much of his entrepreneurial spirit to his upbringing and his father, John, who started the family-owned business nearly four decades ago.
Over the years, Vellani followed in his father’s footsteps, driving buses for the company and taking on various administrative roles. Prior to that, he set his own trailblazing path, opening up a company in the late 1990’s to administer U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) drug and alcohol testing programs.
Whether it has been ensuring safety by providing testing services or getting behind the wheel of the yellow bus himself, Vellani’s nearly 21-year career in school transportation has shown how going above and beyond what contracts require can set the foundation for more personal, long-term client-contractor relationships.
“As the owner [of VAT], you know he’s there to make it right,” says Gary Bright, the former transportation operations manager for Columbus City Schools (a long-time partner of VAT). “He’s just very understanding of our student’s needs and he takes full ownership of that.”
For his dedication to safe transportation and his achievements in growing his family business, School Bus Fleet has named Paul Vellani its 2021 Contractor of the Year.
An Untraditional Start
While it may have been expected for Vellani to take over his family’s business early on, he decided to explore other career options before transitioning to VAT full-time.
At age 11, Vellani had his first job mowing his neighbor’s lawn. Then, as he got older, in high school, he worked for a general contractor, renovating local neighborhood homes during the summer months.
“I’ve never had a traditional job like sitting down at an office all day, nine to five,” Vellani says. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial drive. That’s what eventually led me to open my own company.”
That company was a third-party administrator, organizing USDOT drug and alcohol testing programs for transportation employers across the country. As the owner, Vellani handled policy writing and established contracts with laboratories and medical review officers to ensure proper testing and back-end reporting.
It wasn’t until around 2001 when he sold the business to a company out in Maryland and joined VAT full-time. Vellani got his start driving buses and then, in 2008, moved into more of a fleet management position.
By 2016, when his father hung up his keys and retired from VAT, Vellani not only saw continued growth in the company — which now boasts a fleet of 69 buses and 15 vans to transport about 1,500 students — but also growth within his own leadership and problem-solving skills.
Vellani says one of the best parts of his job is finding all possible solutions to any challenge or situation a customer might have. That proved critical in March 2020 when many schools closed and VAT’s operations came to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a pretty frightening time,” he says. “We initially furloughed everyone, hoping it would only be a month or so until we could return. A handful of our customers resumed operations in late June 2020, so we were slowly able to get the wheels rolling again… [but] revenue took a massive hit.”
The pandemic caused VAT to take a deep dive into its finances, and as a team, Vellani says the company did its best to come up with new ideas and strategies for the changed transportation environment.
With Columbus City Schools being one of the company’s longstanding contracts, Vellani focused on piecing together routes as the district discussed plans for a safe return to the classroom.
“Paul was just so understanding during COVID, and he worked to provide transportation for about four of our schools with reduced ridership,” Bright, who recently retired from Columbus City Schools, said. “Even before COVID, he always provided a human element to our partnership, acting as a liaison with district staff, and always showing up in person to take care of any issues we had.”
Bright recalls one issue that came up last school year when Vellani went above and beyond his contract to develop a mock-up for a plastic shield that could be added between the bus driver’s cabin and students. The plan to implement the plastic shield was ultimately part of a larger effort to get approval from the Ohio State Highway Patrol in allowing Columbus City Schools students safely back on the bus.
Even though the plan was eventually tabled, Bright says Vellani’s actions showed how much he and his team truly cared about the safety of the students being transported.
“Anytime you have somebody that’s coming up with ideas and solutions out of their own pocket, and then also using any influence he had with the State Highway Patrol inspector to get something improved, you can tell it wasn’t just about him,” Bright explains. “That speaks volumes about his entire company.”
Building Close Connections
That type of personal, hands-on approach is also why Steven A. Simmons, the former and retired transportation director for Columbus City Schools, believes VAT has retained many of its longtime contracts and employees.
“It’s because of Paul’s professionalism and his means of communication that he has kept staff and business this long,” Simmons, who is also the current president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, says.
“He treats his staff honorably, and even if he is competing with other districts and [transportation] companies for drivers based on pay and benefits, there are still drivers out there who are choosing to work for Paul,” Bright adds.
Even though local demand has driven up starting wages and drivers have begun to market themselves like never before — knowing they’re in such demand with the driver shortage — Vellani says VAT has worked to increase its starting pay in order to keep its staff on board. (VAT currently employs a total of 88 drivers, four administrative staff members, and three mechanics.)
He also says being a family-owned company has helped with staff retention.
“We have folks all the time who boomerang — they leave to go to a local district, and two or three years later, they come back to us,” he says. “They appreciate how much we’re like a family and treat each other with respect.”
Vellani also says he tries to be an approachable leader, letting staff members know that they can contact him at any point during the day/night.
In a typical year, without COVID restrictions, he says the company hosts off-site activities every quarter as a way to boost staff engagement and morale.
“Unfortunately, the last event we had was our big Christmas party in 2019, but we’re looking forward to getting back to those soon,” Vellani says.
Celebrating a Milestone
Besides the smaller scale events, next up on VAT’s calendar is its 40-year anniversary.
Even though this year marks four decades for the company, Vellani says VAT will have to hold off until next summer to celebrate the milestone the right way (in person) without the ever-changing pandemic protocols.
“It is truly an honor to celebrate such a milestone,” he says. “Not many small businesses make it 20 years, let alone survive to be passed down to a second generation.”
Hoping to continue for a third, Vellani says he is looking to his two sons, who are currently 14 and 11, to show interest and take over the reins someday — maybe becoming designated bus washers first before getting behind the wheel.
“My dad and I have gotten emotional about it before,” he says. “Hopefully, we just keep on the right path and keep chugging along, doing what we do best.”