Gladys Gillis, CEO of Seattle-based Starline Luxury Coaches, didn’t know a thing about the motorcoach industry when Starline President, Becky Pritchett, who founded the company in 1998, asked her to join the operation as vice president. “After a couple of years, I needed Gladys’ assistance,” says Pritchett.
Now CEO of the company (originally named Starline Transportation), Gillis handles the operations and maintenance, while Pritchett manages the accounting, marketing and sales. “Gladys and I each own a 50 percent [share] of the company,” says Pritchett.
In its infancy, the operation started out with a fleet of three minibuses, which has since grown to 54 vehicles. Its diverse fleet offers several different coach sizes, ranging from 16- to 56-passenger vehicles.
Starline also provides non-emergency paratransit services, taking the elderly to and from medical appointments. They use minicoaches for this service; all of them are equipped with wheelchair lifts. “Even though our paratransit program doesn’t bring in as high a profit margin, it’s how we give back to our community,” Gillis says.
With the support of its 120 employees, Starline is now the largest privately owned and operated motorcoach carrier in Seattle — travelling 1.5 million miles last year. In 2005, the operation was voted one of the 100 fastest-growing private businesses in Washington State by the Puget Sound Business Journal. “We’ve had amazing growth,” says Gillis.
Before tackling the motorcoach industry, Gillis worked for Boeing for 13 years as a cost and quality initiatives manager. “I loved it. We were pioneering the fields of Lean Manufacturing, a method of approaching business so that all processes are as efficient as possible,” she says. “It was fun. I felt like they should’ve charged me to participate. I worked on a cross-functional team.”
Her work on airplanes, which required a lot of process definition, was easily applied to buses. Because her work at Boeing involved process re-engineering, Pritchett says, “Gladys has a knack for process improvement.”
Paralleling her past experience, Gillis’ interests lie in pursuing the challenge of building an efficient business, one that could run sufficiently on its own and didn’t require her to be onsite every day. This allows her to travel extensively, helping businesses in the industry with their operational processes — her true passion.
Gillis admits that she prefers to work on outside projects that will improve Starline and other motorcoach companies.
Currently involved in several aspects of the motorcoach industry, Gillis, who has been on the United Motorcoach Association (UMA) Board of Directors for one year, is also the chair of the UMA Technology Committee and a member of the Joint Rules and Risk Management Committees. As a UMA board member, Gillis is responsible for moving association projects forward every year, answering questions in the region, and is involved in hosting the annual Motorcoach Expo, which includes setting up panel discussions, coordinating speakers and working booths.
She was an initial instructor for the UMA’s online Bus and Motorcoach Academy, a certification program for motorcoach managers and drivers created in conjunction with two colleges to further raise the level of professionalism. She has taught business and finance classes for the professional development program.
In addition, Gillis worked for a year on the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Charter Rules Committee, which reviewed how public and private transportation entities work together. A version of the new Charter Rule Gillis worked on was just released and published by the FTA on January 14. “We had public and private stakeholders from across the country in attendance. We met in Washington, D.C., and went through all the rules in the charter. It’s a terrific deliverable,” Gillis says.
Enthusiastic about working on issues that impact the entire industry, like the FTA Charter Rules, Gillis noted that when she started working with her state association, Northwest Motorcoach Association (NMA), Starline couldn’t use loss runs to get competitive rates. Her objective was to secure use of loss runs not just for Starline, but for all motorcoach operators. The NMA hosted a series of meetings, but did not limit their guest list to those in the motorcoach industry; they also invited insurance companies and the state insurance commissioner. “It was really helpful. The insurance commissioner read us what was actually on the books, because none of us knew. It was a regional fix for motorcoach operators,” Gillis says.
Gillis is also pursuing improvements in green practices. She founded the Green Council with the UMA, and will continue to work with them. “It’s a nonprofit organization that educates businesses on opportunities to be green, and educates the public on the intrinsic green value of motorcoaches,” she says.
A memorable moment for Starline happened when the company was selected to be the preferred provider to software giant, Microsoft. They committed to using Starline’s service exclusively. Initially, Microsoft did not have a preferred provider service concept in place, but after about two years of working with Starline, they chose to go with them exclusively.
Looking to the future
Starline is closing on a piece of property, and hopes to grow to a 75-coach fleet over the next three to four years. Having just created a new management team, the company expects to grow and buy more coaches than they were able to in the past.
Pritchett says, “I think some next steps are just to take ourselves out of daily operations. In the last month, we hired a service manager, operations manager and a vice president of marketing and sales. They are all equal. They run their own departments.”
What drives Gillis is her desire to support and encourage others in her industry. “I have fashioned added value in everything I do. I use a collaborative approach and tend to want to help out.” She reflects that while many people are worried about competing with each other, she thinks every time you help someone out in your industry, it makes your market even better. “My involvement in all these different projects ties together. Everything I do is connected.”