At the core of pupil transportation are some of the key aspects of family: providing support, a sense of security, open communication, and value to one another.

In this Q&A, School Bus Fleet spoke with six transportation leaders about the role family plays in their operations, from boosting staff morale during a nationwide driver shortage to ensuring longevity in the midst of a global pandemic.

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Christopher Dean

Director of Innovation, Dean Transportation
Lansing, Michigan

SBF: What has it been like working for a family-owned pupil transportation business?

Dean: As a family‐owned business, we strive to be “more than just a yellow bus company” and work hard to connect with and make a difference in every community we serve. Whether that’s through the support of community‐based organizations, local events, or student‐run initiatives, it’s important to us that we are active and supporting the community as much as possible.

How did the family business get started?

Established in the early 1950s by Eric Christianson, Dean Transportation was born out of a recognized need for transportation services for students affected by polio in Lansing area schools. In 1986, my father, Kellie P. Dean, who currently serves as Dean’s President and CEO, joined Special Transportation, leaving a position as a special educator for Lansing School District after 14 years. In 1991, Special Transportation changed its name to Dean Transportation Inc.

In what ways is your operation working to boost staff morale?

Now more than ever, we feel that it is important to recognize the hard work and dedication of transportation professionals, especially those that contribute to the success of our family business. Whether this is through employee referral program bonuses, personalized birthday cards, gift cards, or other small ways for us to say thank you to our team members.

Any new innovations or initiatives taking place at your operation that you would like to share?

Hand sanitizer and disinfectant have been two key components in transportation departments since the onset of the COVID‐19 pandemic. Recognizing the importance that both of these items would play, we developed a permanent storage apparatus that is currently installed on every one of our school buses as well as in various offices. The apparatus, or Sanitation Station as it is now affectionately called, is patent‐pending with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

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Denille Girardat

President, Girardat LP
Cochranton, Pennsylvania

SBF: What has it been like working for a family-owned pupil transportation business?

Girardat: The dynamics of a family business can either be rewarding and/or challenging, but we can all say we “bleed yellow and black.” It is very rewarding to know that my grandfather started the business with one bus and now we operate approximately 45 buses on a daily basis. We are a third‐generation business with one of the fourth‐generation members securing a bus license this last summer.

What would you say are the top achievements of the company thus far?

Retaining a contract with our local school district for the last 72 years is our greatest achievement. We continue to strive to provide the best customer service to our community and our school officials. When your name is on the side of the school bus, it is so important to maintain a clean, safe fleet.

With a bus driver shortage exacerbated by the pandemic, how is your operation handling it?

We are very fortunate to have many long‐term employees within our business. I would have to say that we are just taking it day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Our team has been fabulous about working with us to ensure that we are fulfilling our daily obligation of ensuring the students are getting to school.

What is something that most people would be surprised to learn about your operation?

The first thing that popped into my mind was that my dad is still driving the same route that he started with 44 years ago. He is transporting third‐generation families in his attendance area. It is fun when he shares a story at the dinner table about one of his students. Then, he starts connecting the dots with who the parents and grandparents are to the student.

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Kevin Watson

President, JFK Transportation
Santa Ana, California

SBF: How did the family business get started?

Watson: My parents, Floyd and Phyllis Watson, launched JFK Transportation in 1993 with a donated bus from my dad’s previous employer. He used this act of generosity to begin servicing students to and from school. Floyd would park this school bus in front of school districts, knock on doors, make phone calls, and would be available to help when the request came.

What would you say are the top achievements of the company thus far?

Witnessing our first employee successfully retire after serving 25 years with JFK, employing a diverse team of drivers that have successfully covered thousands of miles annually, and sponsoring a company Christmas toy giveaway and lunch to over 2,000 students in our community.

With a bus driver shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, how is your operation handling it?

Necessity produces creativity. Our focus is on creating a clear vision of goals and commitments and moving forward as one unit. Most of all being transparent. We realize most people are OK with not so good news, as long as they’re not blindsided.

In what ways is your operation working to boost staff morale?

Creating an enjoyable environment that promotes stress-free alternatives. Our team is treated to “Fun Fridays” where we have catered meals, family ice cream days, or “Fun fact” monthly newsletters. In addition, we have incentives for employee of the month, safety awards, and birthday surprises.

JFK has also partnered with a wellness program in which our team has access to a gym, nutritionist, and a personal trainer. Our goal is to divert the attention from the obvious and encourage laughter, togetherness, and support.

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Jon Leonard

President, Leonard Bus Sales
Saratoga Springs, New York

SBF: What has it been like working for a family-owned pupil transportation business?

Leonard: It has been very rewarding. I grew up around the industry and have always been proud of the service this industry provides. Now that my oldest child is in first grade and riding a school bus every day, the work we do is even more meaningful to me.

How did the family business get started?

My grandparents Gerald and Helen Leonard started Leonard Bus Sales in 1965. It was my grandfather's previous career in truck sales that sparked their interest in the school bus industry.

What has it been like running operations during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID‐19 pandemic has presented plenty of challenges for our business and our industry. When schools closed in March 2020, the impact to our business was immediate. From day 1, my team and I focused on managing the things we could control and understanding what we couldn’t control so that we could make decisions accordingly. We are lucky to have a capable and dedicated team who really stepped up and got the job done. It has been very rewarding for me to see that when you have the right people in the right seats and everyone understands the long-term vision, it's easier to overcome adversity. Unfortunately, we are still facing supply chain shortages and staffing challenges, so we will continue to manage through the pandemic day by day.

What is something that most people would be surprised to learn about your operation?

I think most people would be surprised to learn that our average employee tenure is currently over 7.5 years, which is nearly twice the average for the private sector in 2020.

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Bill Sharp

President, Sharp Bus Lines Ltd.
Brantford, Ontario

SBF: What has it been like working for a family-owned pupil transportation business?

Sharp: I’m incredibly proud to be operating a family‐owned business that was passed down to me through my parents, where my siblings worked, and where our own children, Adam and James, are now involved. It has been so rewarding to be able to watch not only our family grow and prosper through this industry, but also our employees, many of whom have been with us through decades or through generations of their own families.

What would you say are the top achievements of the company thus far?

This year we are celebrating a major milestone, 60 years in business. By far this is one of our largest achievements to date. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come from having just three buses running from our family farm in 1961. Today, we have upwards of 2,000 employees and operations in 12 regions across southern Ontario.

In what ways is your operation working to boost staff morale?

I’ve always found that communication is key in this area. We are consistent on writing and releasing newsletters to drivers and all staff with up‐to‐date industry information and company ongoings. By keeping staff in the loop locally, provincially, and federally, they are more engaged and feel part of the team rather than just another link in the chain. We also send frequent driver surveys and are responsive to the feedback.

What would you say is the key to longevity in the school transportation business?

I have always viewed our corporate structure as an inverse pyramid — as the president, I sit at the bottom — the top priority and most influential team members, our drivers, monitors, dispatchers, and mechanics, sit at the top; their needs are always first and foremost. Having a satisfied team who is not only skilled but who actually enjoy and want to come to work each day, truly makes the difference in the type of service we are able to provide and has unquestionably impacted our longevity in the business.

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Courtney Villani

President, Villani Bus Co.
Linden, New Jersey

SBF: What has it been like working for a family-owned pupil transportation business?

Villani: It’s all about the people. We are blessed to have amazing people in our Villani Bus family. I was fortunate enough to work with my mother and father for many years in the business before their passing. I got to see how much really hard work goes into a day and how much they put behind them before family dinner at the end of a day and that stays with me.

How did the family business get started?

My grandfather started the business with an old milk truck during a trolley car strike in 1919. He was walking home from work after a long hard day of work and thought “what I wouldn’t pay for a ride right now.” He looked around at others walking home tired as well and the idea took off from there.

What has it been like running operations during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I feel like we all keep landing on the “whammy” on that game show Press Your Luck. It has been the most challenging time in our history with more unknowns than knowns and we’re still in it.

Any new innovations or initiatives taking place at your operation that you would like to share?

We’ve just rolled out a 401k through the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association (NJSBCA). Our NJSBCA officers (I am secretary) and board of directors worked hard to be able to offer employee retention tools such as a 401k to our contractor members and are excited as for more to come.

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