Gladys Gillis, the CEO and co-owner of Starline Luxury Coaches in Seattle, says “it never occurred to me that I might own a bus company or be in small business.” Instead, she studied industrial technology, energy sources and power at Central Washington University expecting to teach shop. But after she completed her student teaching, she says teaching children wasn’t for her.
She was then hired on at the engineering department at Boeing where she stayed for 13 years. Though she had a few different roles, her final position with the company was manager of cost and quality initiatives which, she explains, is the marriage between organizational development and process engineering.
“I had so much fun doing that job they should have charged me as I came through the gate every day,” Gillis says.
In 1998, Gillis’s business partner Becky Pritchett, now the president of Starline Luxury Coaches, who had previously owned a limousine and taxi company in Medford, Ore. approached her about starting a bus company, because women were seldom seen in the industry and the two of them could qualify for a disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE).
Gillis explains that through a DBE with an international school bus company, Starline Luxury Coaches got its start with three paratransit mini-buses.
In addition to running those three mini-buses during the day, Gillis and Pritchett chartered them at night and on weekends allowing the company to buy more buses. After 16 years, Gillis now co-owns a 70-bus operation with two locations and 125 employees. Her main priority is to ensure that her six departments are running smoothly, drama-free and in compliance. Gillis’ patience, calmness and innate sense of process clarity help her manage her employees.
One of the things Gillis says she is most proud of the company for is that over the course of the last 14 years, Starline Luxury Coaches has paid more than $30 million in payroll to some 800 employees. The company has also spent another $30 million in the region, helping to boost the economy.
“To think you’ve built a company that provides a decent income to people who want to work here and has put a considerable amount of money into a local economy to keep it moving — that feels like a real achievement,” she says.
After Starline Luxury Coaches moved to a new facility in 2010, it implemented a number of environmentally-friendly initiatives, including the use of a rainwater harvesting system. Since the Pacific Northwest is so rainy, Gillis installed a 3,000-gallon holding tank underneath the parking lot that captures rainwater, which the company uses to wash its buses each night. In 2011, Starline received awards for its sustainable efforts, including the United Motorcoach Association’s (UMA) Green Highway Award.
Of all the environmental initiatives her company implemented in the design and build of their new facility, Gillis is the most proud of the rainwater harvesting system.
Additionally, Starline Luxury Coaches has been named one of the top 100 fastest growing companies in the region more than once over the last 10 years. Gillis is also on the board and the executive committee for the UMA, is involved in the Northwest Motorcoach Association, and recently became a proud member of the International Motorcoach Group.
According to Gillis, it’s critical for her to stay active in the industry, citing a number of unfunded mandates, such as minimum wage and paid-time off mandates. “It’s possible that if you’re not speaking up for yourself, no one is,” she says.
When she isn’t running her company, Gillis spends time on her boat in the San Juan Islands, does single- track mountain biking, and for the last couple of years, has been doing an ongoing RV trip around the country.