METRO talked to two motorcoach operators from opposite ends of the U.S. to discuss some of their biggest challenges, as well as what they plan on doing to continue the industry’s growth trend. In addition to their shared challenge of identifying drivers, one operator also discussed his perspectives on entering the industry within the past year.
President/CEO, The Fullington
Auto Bus Co.
What challenges are you experiencing at your operation? that are unique to your region?
We operate primarily in rural, low-density areas. Our largest facility is located directly in the shadow of Penn State University so there is competition for quality employees.
What have you done to make the company more attractive to prospective employees?
Well, all the normal incentives that other companies offer really, such as sign-on bonuses. Sign-on bonuses are paid in installments including an upfront payment followed by additional payments after a certain number of months of continued employment. We also offer benefits to full-time employees including paid vacation, health, dental, vision, etc. We try to make sure that we offer a family environment as much as possible. For example, we have ‘Back to School’ meetings at our school bus locations, and all 10 members of our senior management team show up and share their support for our drivers. During these meetings, we also thank them for driving students safely to and from their school and homes. It’s important that our front line employees know they are important to our company.
Another thing that we do is keep employees updated on how the company is doing. We’re doing well and, as CEO of the company, I want them to know that. We just renewed long-term contracts with two of our school districts two years before they were even up for renewal. That really speaks to the relationship we enjoy with our customers and the quality of service provided by our drivers and our staff.
We also try to help our employees out when we can. We’ve found creative ways for employees to help one another in times of need. For instance, we have casual Fridays, where we allow employees to wear jeans, but they have to put $1 in a jar. At the end of the year, we usually divvy up collected funds two or three ways and give it to employees that need help.
What new business are you exploring?
Recently we held what I call a leadership conference with our senior and mid-level managers, about 45 people in all. We focused on our company goals and objectives, both short- and long-term. A couple times a year we like to get away from the day-to-day operations and exchange ideas with our mid-level and senior-level managers about the future of the company. We want to make decisions on goals and objectives that are challenging but achievable, so we ask for our leadership’s input.
We certainly want to grow. I think we will. We’re probably going to get another two districts on the school bus side. And then, I think that we are looking at acquisitions of smaller companies in and around our region, as well. If the opportunity presents itself and it’s the right opportunity, we would certainly move on that. We’re almost at 80 motorcoaches now, so we certainly are also able to handle large contracts, if we get that type of work.
With so much competition, what are some of the aspects that make Fullington unique?
This is a very logistical sort of business that we live in, and the environment is always changing constantly. One of the things that our dispatch office does very well on a day-to-day basis is have those moving pieces of the puzzle constantly moving and keeping them moving because, let’s face it, we all have breakdowns. There might be an A/C issue. Or, you might have a customer, a good customer, call and say they need three buses tomorrow, but you are sold out. So, we try to make sure that we are flexible and agile. We want the customer to know when they call us that we will do everything in our power to be able to accommodate them. We run probably to a 110-percent business model every single day, not 90 percent and then wait for a breakdown. So, I think our customers know they can count on us.
Do we have customer service failures? Absolutely, we do, like any other company, but we are very, very quick to try to resolve those issues and make sure the customer knows that we are working on the issue and trying to find a resolution.
Where would you like to see your company in five years? Two weeks ago, we had what I call a leadership conference with our senior and mid-level managers. We had about 45 people there, and we’re going to continue doing this twice a year. And, what it is basically is focusing on what are our goals and objectives are over the short term, as well as in the long-term. We really think that we have some general goals and objectives that we want to achieve, but we want the input from our mid-level and senior-level managers. At corporate, we don’t want to make decisions on goals and objectives that are not achievable, so we’re asking for our leadership’s input. So, we’re just embarking on these exercises of going through that process.
We certainly want to grow. I think we will grow. We’re probably going to get another two districts on the school bus side. And then, I think that we are looking at acquisitions of smaller companies in and around our region, as well. You know, if the opportunity presents itself and it’s the right opportunity, we would certainly move on that. But in the big picture scheme, in the next five years, we absolutely will get another couple of contracts on the school bus side. We’re almost at 80 motorcoaches now, so we certainly are also able to handle large contracts, if we get that type of work.
What sort of technologies has your operation added?
Certainly, we added electronic logging devices this year, but we’ve also spent a lot of money in terms of retrofitting many of our coaches with 110-volt outlets. They all have Wi-Fi now as well. We also want to make sure that we’re more efficient in our organization, operationally, to make sure that we’re utilizing all the equipment as best as possible and know where they’re going. We certainly look at technology. It’s one of those things that changes constantly and you always have a better something out there to do it easier and cheaper.
VP, Operations, Sun Diego
You are relatively new to the industry, tell me how your past work experience is helping you in your new position at Sun Diego?
I come from the airport parking world, and had transportation experience from a passenger and employee-shuttle standpoint at several airports across the country, but the charter bus business is entirely new to me and is a refreshing change. Many of the challenges are similar and relatable — operations execution, employee coverage and retention, operating an around-the-clock business that really never closes, and focusing on training and customer service to optimize the passenger experience. The airport parking and transportation business is also heavily dependent on its workforce and is customer facing — the folks on the front lines are the ones creating the first, last, and best impressions of your company or organization. Our drivers do a great job when we support them and provide everything they need to succeed and make it easy for them to go out there and have a great trip. That is relatable across many different industries, but the nature of the bus business is such that our drivers spend more time with our customers and creating an impression of our company than do managers or support staff. The job is done out on the road, often far from the office or home, so as a team we have to take every measure to support the driver and help him or her succeed.
Have you brought anything from previous stops you are trying to implement?
Communication is good within the team here, but I think it could always be stronger. The details make a difference, particularly as they relate to the customer experience, and to perform our best sales, operations, maintenance and safety/training all need to be working in concert. I’m a believer in the concept of external and internal customer service: developing and maintaining strong, functional relationships between internal departments is a necessary condition for external customer success. Also, because the company’s employee base has grown significantly with the integration of Goldfield Stage, we are adopting better methods to handle the scale of our daily work. As an example, we recently began batch emailing work orders to drivers to confirm the day’s schedule more quickly, as it is no longer efficient to confirm drivers by phone.
What is your company’s biggest challenge and what are you doing to overcome it?
The driver shortage is our single biggest challenge, by far. One of our fundamental challenges as a company and industry, both now and in the future, is figuring out how to train, develop, and retain safe, professional, high-quality drivers. The business is driver powered, at its core.
Here at Sun Diego, we are trying to attack the problem via a unique ‘Driver in Training’ program that we started earlier this year, where we are taking candidates from zero driving experience to CDL holder in about six weeks. We provide all of the classroom and behind-the-wheel training, in house, via a dedicated Driver-In Training program manager who is also a California-certified SPAB trainer. We reimburse all the costs associated with obtaining a commercial license, furnish all materials, pay the candidate a full-time training wage, and are turning out newly minted CDL holders. The program is a pathway to a driving career for those who have no experience and otherwise might be deterred by the costs associated with obtaining a commercial license independently, and we think it has significant market appeal in a military-centric town like San Diego, where every day folks are transitioning out of their military careers and considering future employment options. By growing drivers in house, we hope to grow less reliant on the limited pool of drivers that all operators are competing for while bringing individuals with strong customer service and people skills into the industry.
As I mentioned, we just started the program earlier this year, and we have already had several candidates graduate with their license and begin full-time employment with us. We really see the program as a long-term effort to combat the driver shortage while also injecting the company with energy and fresh perspective.
What are your early impressions on the industry?
I’ve been a little bit struck by how familial and close-knit the industry is. People in a lot of different businesses make that claim, but it’s really true in the charter bus business; I’ve been surprised at how many of these operations are multi-generational, family-run businesses. We just merged with one, Goldfield Stage, in early 2018, which was a homegrown, family operated business similar to Sun Diego.
Another takeaway is the degree of cooperation between operators that is needed to advance the interests of the comprehensive business at big events like Comic-Con, marathons, and festivals. The way we interact with our competitors is certainly different from the parking space, in terms of farming out business, maintaining communication, and staying abreast of local market and industry developments. While we love to compete, and are focused on growing and continuing to lead the market here in San Diego, there’s a bit of a ‘we’re all in this together’ type of mindset between operators that I think is unique, particularly locally.
What makes your company stand out from the others, what makes it unique?
I think Sun Diego stands out for the longevity of our presence and success in the market, our commitment to safety and exemplary safety history, and the quality of our people. Rich Illes (CEO) built and led a great business, but he did so with the help of a handful of key long-time managers and drivers who created the culture and have had a huge hand in the history of Sun Diego. They are proud of this company and their contributions to it, and I am really fortunate to have their guidance and assistance as I learn a new business and gain experience in the role. My challenge is maintaining that family-like element of trust and support that has been so critical to our success, while also ensuring that we are positioned for the future and the long term.