Because of the sluggish economy, transit properties and suppliers are bound to form more meaningful partnerships. A lack of job stability in the transit bus industry, as well as the textile industry that services the transit market, is a key reason three transit properties and their seat fabric supplier forged a bond that has proven to be mutually beneficial to all participants.
As the only U.S. producer of transit seating fabric, LaFrance Industries, located in LaFrance, S.C., made an effort to reach out to neighboring transit agencies.
A special relationship with Clemson Area Transit’s (CAT) Al Babinicz, president/CEO, and Keith Moody, transit supervisor, began through a chance meeting at BusCon in Chicago five years ago, according to Danny Grant, VP, LaFrance.
The bond was a natural occurrence because many of LaFrance’s employees ride CAT, with its plant and the agency’s operations center only five miles apart, Grant explains.
Babinicz, Moody, Grant and Joe Brinkmeyer, sales executive for LaFrance, make it a point to meet at each of the major bus shows throughout the year, according to Brinkmeyer.
Babinicz appreciates the support of the LaFrance employees and the products and services they offer.
“LaFrance is a world-class company with quality products and a sales staff that are reliable leaders, creators and thinkers that work hard to save CAT money and time,” he says.
The CAT and LaFrance partnership has worked to improve the community they share by making public transportation both more accessible and enjoyable to the employees of LaFrance, the students of Clemson University and residents of the community.
Keep it local
LaFrance, a division of Mount Vernon Mills, headquartered in Greenville, S.C., has been servicing the U.S. transit market since 2004. Judson Boehmer, president of LaFrance, explains the entry of LaFrance into the transit bus and motorcoach fabric seating markets was essential for growth and to complement the diverse offerings of fabrics in the automotive, industrial and home furnishings markets.
“LaFrance is celebrating 175 years of service in the textile industry, dating back to 1838, making us the oldest textile manufacturer in the southeast,” he explains. “The only way we have been able to withstand the test of time is to form strategic partners with local companies to develop and promote top quality fabrics with on-time delivery.”
Based on its relationship with Clemson University and the transportation needs of the outlying communities, CAT has grown over the years. In addition to recent delivery of four Nova LFS smart buses, Clemson is adding a Proterra all-electric bus to its fleet, which happens to be built 25 miles up the road from Clemson in Greenville, S.C.
Babinicz explains that cost savings, efficiency, and supporting jobs and economic development in South Carolina are major reasons for the procurement.
“A public transportation decision is an economic development decision,” he says. “Very soon, CAT bus will be operating the only scalable all-electric public transportation fleet in the world, with buses manufactured [locally].”
LaFrance has even worked with Moody on the selection of an appropriate seating fabric for the new CAT buses, according to Brinkmeyer.[PAGEBREAK]
Responsive customer service
LaFrance continues to gain market share through responsive service and satisfying the special needs of both large and small transit properties, says Grant.
In Columbia, S.C., Dr. Bob Schneider, GM of The COMET (Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority), was looking to rebrand and energize the transit system.
“We are trying to break with what was a very tumultuous past and show some real creativity and energy to attract new riders,” Schneider explains.
With a large portion of the fleet in need of seat fabric replacement, it was the perfect time to bring the brand into the bus and create a custom fabric.
The reinvigorated bus fleet has received rave reviews from within the community and throughout the transit market, according to Schneider.
“Our brand is about attracting new riders — especially the 17- to 25-year-old market — to our system,” he explains. “They are building their habits, and if transit is part of their young adulthood, it could be part of the rest of their lives. We want riders not for four years in college, but for their entire careers.”
Based on the design skills of LaFrance’s product development team, the company was able to turn a conceptual design into the interior seating fabrics to complement the exterior color scheme of The COMET’s popular and wildly designed buses, explains Boehmer.
The COMET and LaFrance developed a partnership that was beneficial to both. Schneider challenged the company to provide an interior fabric that would create an exciting and energetic interior experience, and LaFrance was able to expand their creative and product development expertise by stretching to satisfy The COMET’s needs.
Filling a need
Ga.-based Athens Area Transit, a mere 70 miles from the LaFrance plant, had a specific need for a small quantity of upholstery fabric four years ago, and LaFrance was ready and able to fill that need, which began the relationship with Athens, according to Grant. The problem was identified through a casual conversation at a Georgia Transit Association meeting with Butch McDuffie, director, and Terry Ferguson, maintenance administrator.
Athens’ bus fleet appearance is monitored closely to maintain a professional image. LaFrance has supported Athens with providing upholstery for the seat insert replacement program and new bus purchases.
Athens was faced with a difficult mission until LaFrance provided upholstery material. The agency works closely with the University of Georgia (UGA), providing transportation to the citizens of Athens-Clarke County and the students of UGA. McDuffie explains the growth of the agency is based on satisfying the citizens and special needs of the university.
The partnership between LaFrance and Athens inspired LaFrance to expand and improve their customer service program, enabling Athens to add efficiency and cost savings to their bus maintenance program. Athens can maintain the interiors of their buses more efficiently and economically while also offering their ridership an attractive, well-maintained seating environment.
Joe Brinkmeyer is sales executive for LaFrance Industries.