As more Americans moved south during COVID, Sunway Charters’ owner and President Lee Helms knew when transportation returned to normal his Charlotte, N.C-based firm would be ready to meet the travel demand.
“Our entire industry has been through something unprecedented, but we knew there would be many new opportunities in our region when the economy finally got going again,” says Helms, who in June added five coaches to his expanding 140-vehicle fleet of luxury motorcoaches, mid-size coaches, mini-buses, transit buses, and trolleys.
In July, Sunway added four of those coaches to its new Mid-State Express route. The fixed-route service provides daily round trips from Winston-Salem with stops in Lexington, High Point, Asheboro, Siler City, Sanford, and Fayetteville, supporting North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) intercity transportation. A round trip from Fayetteville will also stop in those same towns.
The South was the only region of the country that had a positive net migration during COVID, according to North Carolina’s Office of State Budget and Management blog, citing the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 estimates.
Sunway Charters’ business expansion reflects the upward trend. Besides its Charlotte headquarters, Sunway operates locations in Winston-Salem, Jacksonville, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., and runs charters, golf tournament transportation, event, corporate and airport shuttles, school trips, military transport, and more, including its expanding daily scheduled commuter service for NCDOT.
A natural entrepreneur
Sunway’s success began with Lee Helms’ entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to spot opportunities in other territory.
A Charlotte native, Helms worked for his father's insulation company in his teens, where he would be up in hot attics of homes for hours as an insulation installer and later as an electrician. While Helms had other career plans, “the work ethic stuck,” he explains. As an adult, he entered the bar and restaurant business, opening his own place in his mid-twenties, while serving as a Reservist in the Air National Guard. A decade later, he joined the corporate world becoming a sales leader for a national food service distributor.
His entry into the charter bus industry began when his cousin, who owned a tour operation, won a contract in 1999 to manage a golf tournament at North Carolina's Pinehurst and called on Helms for help.
“We managed a big crowd,” recalls Helms, who continued to work with his cousin in management, booking school travel and bringing customers back after 9/11.
By 2002, Helms was the owner of a small trolley business in Charlotte, N.C. In 2004, he was ready to move beyond trolleys when he purchased his first coach, an MCI F3500 that was the last to roll off the company’s Sahagun, Mexico assembly line.
But by 2011, Helms was looking to accelerate the growth of his business when he found Sunway Charters & Tours, a small coach company in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for sale. After buying Sunway, Helms began by changing the name of his company from Trolleys of the Carolinas to Sunway Charters. The acquisition added casino trips, cruise ship runs, and cross-country tours.
In 2015, Helms doubled his current territory and expanded his fleet by acquiring North Carolina’s Horizon Coach Lines, which was struggling at the time. With the purchase, he gained Horizon’s Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Jacksonville locations along with their scheduled service operations. Sunway's fleet went from 20 vehicles to 100 overnight.
“I knew we could turn the business around,” said Helms. "We already had our Charlotte location, so we sold theirs along with some equipment and kept the scheduled service operation with North Carolina DOT intact and ran that through COVID, which really helped us.”
Sunway connects communities by operating intercity bus service from its Winston-Salem and Charlotte locations. In partnership with NCDOT, these services give people a comfortable and affordable alternative to driving between major cities throughout the state.
Sunway operates the Mountaineer East/West intercity bus service from its Winston-Salem location for Boone, Wilkesboro, Hamptonville, and Greensboro. Its Charlotte location serves the Mountaineer North/South route for service in Gastonia, Lincolnton, Hickory, Lenoir, and Boone.
Each of Sunway’s locations also has its specialty. The Charlotte location provides service for the NBA, several city tour organizations, and they are the official transportation provider for the Charlotte Sports Foundation. Winston-Salem works with Wake Forest Football, local universities Greek-life, and the High Point Furniture Market.
Jacksonville supports Amtrak in providing “thru-way” service in the eastern parts of North Carolina. They also are heavily involved in military moves for nearby bases. Myrtle Beach is the official transportation provider for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans while also partnering with Hilton Grand Vacations to provide shuttle service to their excursions.
Helms’ early success at Pinehurst also kept Sunway building a niche and gaining a reputation as a quality transportation provider for golf tournaments. Sunway serves the Wells Fargo Championship, traditionally held in Charlotte; annually transports the players and their families during the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in Georgia; and provides transportation for other PGA tournaments throughout the South and even the Northeast. Sunway coaches also recently helped carry crowds to the 2022 U.S. Open Championship at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., held in June.
Creating a culture that works
Helms says, “It’s important to have a good CFO, who brings clarity to financial matters, and for me to understand each person and put them in the right job, so everyone is doing what they are supposed to do.”
Sunway rewards employees for jobs well done with annual pay increases and increased hourly rates for drivers to help offset the pandemic strain.
Based on social media feedback from customers, Helms’ approach encourages team members to dedicate themselves to the safety and comfort of Sunway’s passengers. Glowing reviews about Sunway driver Shameeka Simpson, who became like family to a group traveling to Charleston, S.C., has made her one of the company’s most-requested drivers.
Sunway also gets high marks from customers for stepping in on the occasional hiccup with other carriers or assuring groups during severe weather conditions that Sunway will always stand ready to transport them safely.
Leading by example
Active within the bus industry for two decades, Helms served as president of the North Carolina Motorcoach Association from 2018 to 2021. Under his leadership, they began having an annual meeting between neighboring states’ associations to increase regional networking opportunities and provide cost-effective vendor participation.
Helms also serves on the board of the Motor Coach Association of South Carolina and is an active member of the North Carolina, Virginia, and New York motorcoach associations, as well as the United Motorcoach Association.
“I am dedicated to improving the efficiencies and resources for the industry,” says Helms. “I enjoy building businesses. I have a knack for it.”
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