Whether it's Levi’s, Ford’s Mustang, or the #2 pencil, some brands’ reputations are built to last. Building and maintaining a brand is not easy and nobody knows that more than MCI, which marks its 90th anniversary this year.
However, when looking at some of the keys to MCI’s success, it seems easy — build a safe and reliable cornerstone vehicle, forge and nurture relationships with your customer base, and show the flexibility to continue to innovate and grow your product line as technology evolves.
“I’ve been with MCI since 1976, so I have seen many milestones reached from decade to decade. Reflecting on that, I think advancements in technology have allowed us to make the progression that we have, as well as those alliances that we have had with our engine and transmission manufacturers,” explains Pat Ziska, who is set to retire in February as VP, private sector sales, after 46 years with the company.
Tom Wagner, who is replacing Ziska as VP, private sector sales, concurs.
“I haven’t been around as long as Pat, but whether it's the necessity to lower emissions through clean diesel, CNG, hybrid, battery-electric buses, and in the not-too-distant future fuel-cell coaches, there have been a lot of changes to the technologies we work with over the last couple of decades that I’ve been at MCI, and our ability to adapt has been huge,” he says.
Building a Brand
MCI’s product line has evolved over the years, adapting to the changing technologies and the needs of its customer base in the motorcoach industry. While the technologies have helped shape the modern coaches the company and its peers make today, MCI’s strong industry presence has helped it keep its ear to the ground, so to speak, on the needs and desires of its motorcoach industry partners.
“Trade shows have been a great place for us to get all sorts of feedback on our products, which is why we always have such a broad team attend UMA’s Expo, ABA’s Marketplace, and other shows throughout the year,” says Brent Maitland, VP, private sector sales and marketing, at MCI. “Over the years, we’ve used that customer engagement to update our vehicles, whether it be changing a component because it fails too frequently, making design changes to increase driver or passenger comfort, or testing different engines. No matter the suggestion, we always listen to them and might not implement every change they request, but we do prioritize the ones that are going to have the biggest impact on our customers.”
Ziska explains that those relationships were forged by MCI in the 1970s and 80s when motorcoach travel was the preferred mode because traveling by plane was still too expensive.
“Because the motorcoach was the preferred way to travel, it meant that operators like Greyhound, Peter Pan, and the Trailways Network were able to offer a better product and their companies were able to grow based on the passenger and driver safety and comfort we were able to provide in our coaches. At that time, we couldn’t build them fast enough,” says Ziska. “Having close relationships with those large operations then, helped us understand that we needed to continue to work with our customers, continually improving the engineering of our vehicles, and thus, enhancing the product. That’s how we really built our market share…the personal touch.”
Internally, Maitland says the key to building the brand has been keeping the team trained on the product, as well as informed of the feedback that is gathered through the one-on-one interactions with operators. MCI also always stresses putting the customer first.
“In terms of training and coaching our teams, the philosophy we use is ‘One Team,’” he explains. “The philosophy has changed over the years, whether it be MCI One or One Team, but the point is that we own the problem we’re dealing with and always go the extra mile to solve the issue as a team. Consistently.”
Surviving and Thriving
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact not only on the motorcoach and public transit industries but also on their supplier partners like MCI. Maitland explains that like its motorcoach customers, the company used it as an opportunity to streamline the business.
“First, we made some structural changes, much like many companies had to when COVID hit,” says Maitland. “So, we made a lot of those changes, which included combining New Flyer and MCI and making some changes to our staffing levels.”
Maitland adds the next step during the pandemic was remaining engaged with MCI’s customers and guiding them through the “new normal” they were going through. This included webinars and other outreach on new best practices, including how to sanitize your buses and how to properly park and maintain motorcoaches when they are not in service for long periods, which helped get the industry through the difficult times they began to face in 2020. The company also joined a coalition of associations, operators, and suppliers that lobbied Congress to provide CERTS funding to the industry.
Now, much like the motorcoach industry, MCI is marching forward.
“Now that the industry is beginning to rebound, it’s been about bringing our collective MCI/New Flyer teams together to make sure our engineering and back-office processes are in order and that we maintain consistency when serving our customers. This piece is critical,” says Maitland. “Early on, people were worried about what would happen to the MCI brand after we combined with New Flyer, but we’ve put those concerns to rest. We’ve structured the business to focus on MCI as a unique entity that will continue to strive to better serve our customers in both the private and public sectors. NFI Group’s investments in the brand allowed us to build battery-electric editions of our models and launch the next generation D-Series.”
Ziska believes that since the pandemic reshaped the possibilities of what could happen in the U.S. and Canada, the impact on businesses will continue to be felt down the road.
“For generations, pandemics have existed in other parts of the world, but they didn’t necessarily happen here,” she says. “The pandemic, I think, makes you realize you can’t take anything for granted anymore and that you must tread slowly now until you fully contemplate not only how the decision you’re making today will impact business two or five years from now, but what can happen if something like the pandemic happens again. Overall, we’re grateful that businesses are starting to bounce back, but we will move ahead with a bigger sense of conservatism, I think.”
As the clouds begin to part on a motorcoach industry that was hit hard by the pandemic, Maitland says that demand for MCI vehicles is improving.
“Demand is definitely ticking up. I think the issue for us, as well as our competitors, is we can’t build as many coaches as people want,” says Maitland. “Part of the reason for that issue is a question of whether we can increase our production volumes quickly enough. The other issue, of course, is the supply chain challenges, which tend to slow things down as far as parts availability and the like.”
On the Horizon
In September, MCI unveiled its new zero-emission, battery-electric high-floor commuter coach, the D45 CRT CHARGE. The vehicle — a zero-emission version of the D45 Commuter Rapid Transit (CRT) series public transit coach — integrates proven CHARGE propulsion from New Flyer, including regenerative braking, and features design advancements of MCI’s next-generation D45 CRT commuter transit coaches, including enhanced reliability, efficiency, and high performance.
The Buy America-compliant D45 CRT CHARGE™ harnesses three high-performing technologies, including a high-torque electric drive system that delivers up to 90% energy recovery and is designed to efficiently handle long-distance applications at highway speeds; next-generation, high-energy, long-range batteries delivering a range of over 225 miles with 520 kWh of battery capacity; and interoperable plug-in battery charging from empty to full in less than four hours.
The launch continues MCI’s vision to bring its common coach architecture to the market, which includes the new D45 CRT and the other D series models, including the D4520 for private sector operations. The common platform was initially launched with the J4500.
“The move to a common platform is important because, from an engineering and support standpoint, the parts commonality simplifies maintenance and also makes it easier to diagnose and troubleshoot when issues are being experienced with one of our vehicles,” explains Maitland.
More recently in December, MCI delivered its first zero-emission J4500 CHARGE to a California Bay Area operator, who will use it for an employee shuttle service.
Introduced in 2021, the J4500 CHARGE is a zero-emission version of the J series tour and charter luxury coach. Powered by American-made, high-energy batteries, the J4500 CHARGE leverages EV technology from New Flyer and delivers a range of over 230 miles (544 kWh) on a single charge.
Wagner hints that more propulsion modes may be in the offing.
“We offer a hydrogen fuel-cell bus on the transit side already, and it’s something that we’ll continue to look at moving forward. It’s just a matter of how we package the technology into the coach,” says Wagner. “I would envision, at some point, just as we continue to offer a robust portfolio to meet whatever the customer and regulatory requirements are, that fuel cells will be part of our portfolio.”
A bright spot in MCI’s relationship with customers is its expansive parts supply, technical support, service centers, and technician training through the ASE-accredited MCI Academy. “The way we support our coaches has been an important part of our success,” said Maitland. “Operators can expect MCI to continue to expand its service and support reach in the coming years.”
With so much going on, the folks at MCI do still have time to reflect on its 90th milestone and what it will take to continue moving ahead to marking its 100th anniversary.
“Reaching the 90-year milestone, I would think the core values and processes that have made us successful will stay in place, which includes valuing our customers and those relationships, as well as the technical and aftermarket support we offer them,” says Ziska. “I think MCI will also continue to stay the course with our reliability-driven philosophy and do the things that made us a trusted supplier partner over the years. Sticking to our core values — that’s the key to our future success.”
“Looking ahead, I think there will be changes to how we support our customers, such as more remote diagnostics, as well as new technologies like hydrogen fuel cells, improved electric buses, and automation,” adds Wagner. “Overall, though, a decade from now, I just don’t see the core values Pat and our predecessors established will be changing anytime soon.”
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