Thomas Built Buses President a Role Model as First Women to a Lead Vehicle Manufacturer

kelleyplattKelley Platt was named president and CEO of Thomas Built Buses January 1, 2010, marking a milestone in the school transportation industry.

Platt, who joined Daimler Trucks North America LLC (DTNA) in 1989 as Freightliner's manager of treasury services, played a pivotal role in DTNA’s 1988 acquisition of Thomas Built Buses and received due recognition by becoming the first woman to lead a school bus manufacturing company. Before being named president, she served as general manager of business excellence, where she was responsible for developing training programs to help employees improve product quality and business processes.

She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Colby College and a master’s degree in business administration from Duke University.

John O’Leary, who served as Thomas Built Buses president from 2002 through 2009, moved to a new role at DTNA as senior vice president, service and parts. He is a member of the operating committee and participates in overall management of the company.

School Transportation News: To my knowledge, you are the highest-ranking female at a school bus vehicle manufacturer in the industry’s history. Do you feel you have any added social responsibility in a historically male-dominated field, especially considering that, by some estimates, women school transportation directors outnumber their male counterparts nearly three to one?

Kelley Platt: Obviously, if you consider transporting children, this is a business that has always included a lot of women, although not in vehicle manufacturing. And one of the things I discovered the first week I was here was that [company founder] Perley Thomas’ daughter, Melva, was very involved in running the business back in the 1930s and 1940s as the company treasurer. Members of the Thomas family told me they were very pleased to see a woman leading the business and carrying on that family heritage.

That was an interesting discovery, because one of the things we are very proud of at Thomas is our heritage as a family business. And now this is a business where we are continuing that legacy: building on a company that takes seriously our responsibility for transporting children to and from school, and our responsibility to our communities and to the environment.

I hope I can serve as a role model for other women in our business and in our industry. I take that very seriously.

STN: Your experience with Thomas Built Buses dates back to Daimler Trucks’ purchase of the company in 1988. Share with us your recollection of where Thomas has been, where it is now and, under your leadership, where it is headed.

KP: I was fortunate to play a key role in the team that brought Thomas Built Buses into the Daimler family. When we were looking at school bus companies, we spent a lot of time looking at the character of the businesses. We wanted to find a company that was a leader in the industry, valued innovation and safety, and fit with the Daimler values. For a long time, Daimler has been a leader in safety innovations in automobile and truck manufacturing, and that was one of the things that drew us to Thomas.

We were able to take a business that already was doing a fantastic job as a bus manufacturer and add to it DTNA’s state-of-the-art chassis manufacturing technology. We brought those pieces together with the introduction of the C2 in 2004, and we will continue to do that in the future.

I’d like to see Thomas take an ever-increasing role in leadership in green technology, and in new kinds of powertrains for school buses, so we continue to be leaders in this industry. And I’d like to see more and more children on school buses. We all know that school buses are the safest and most environmentally-friendly way to transport children to and from school.

STN: Previously, you served as general manager of business excellence for Daimler Trucks North America. How do you plan to leverage that experience at Thomas?

KP: In that role, I had an opportunity to see all aspects of our business – everything from procurement, manufacturing, engineering and operations to sales, after-market products, finance and HR – and to work with each on programs to improve quality and efficiency.

A key component was helping people understand the needs of their customers. Whether that was another group within the organization or the people who purchased our trucks, drove or repaired them, they all had very specific requirements. It was important for us to learn how to capture the customer’s voice and to translate that into meeting their needs. Helping different groups learn how to do that is something I will continue to work on at Thomas.

The other thing that was important was developing a group of people whose focus was on continuous improvement. We were always looking for the next best way to improve what we did every day: to make better products, produce them more efficiently, make them in a more timely way so they were available when the customer wanted them, to make sure we took care of customers in the way they wanted to be taken care of.

Developing that mindset is a very important part of making sure we can provide the kinds of buses people are looking for, when they want them, and continue to improve the level of customer service on an ongoing basis.

STN: Did John O’Leary offer you any advice before he left Thomas for his new position on the Daimler Trucks executive team?

KP: Yes, he did. I’ve been with Daimler more than 20 years, so I pre-dated the Thomas acquisition, but I’ve known John the entire time he was at Daimler, and I’ve had opportunities to work with him a number of times. I have great respect for John.

One of the things he told me is that the school bus business is unique. It’s an industry characterized by people who in all capacities are very passionate about their desire to safely transport our children to school. In everything we do, we need to consider that precious cargo. And, if you keep that single purpose foremost in your mind, it’s very easy to find the right direction. He suggested that what I really need to do is to watch for things that are unique to this business, and to be sure I don’t lose sight of them.

John new role in the organization – supporting Thomas in providing aftermarket parts and repair parts for our vehicles and being part of Daimler Trucks North America’s executive team -- gives us someone with direct school bus industry experience who will make sure we can take advantage of changes and technological innovations in the larger Daimler arena.

From my perspective, this is a win-win for Thomas. We not only have the ability to continue John’s vision but to build on it. So it’s not just a one-for-one replacement; it’s like we got one and a half.

STN: You mentioned that there was certainly a lot to learn from customers, dealers, experts in the industry and, I’m sure, people right there in Highpoint, as well, who’ve been with Thomas at ground level for 23 years. Could you share some of the things you’re looking to learn more about?

KP: Yes. I am eager to learn more about the challenges school districts and the contractors that support them have in operating their vehicles, and how we might be able to make that easier for them.

I’m eager to learn more about alternative fuels or alternative construction or other things we could do to make the buses even more environmentally-friendly than they are today.

I’m eager to learn more about some of the ways we may be able to become more efficient as a company so we can, in turn, make it more efficient to transport children. I think that one of the challenges we have is to continue to improve so we can help our customers’ meet their financial challenges.

So there’s a variety of things I am eager to learn. And one of the things that is high on my list is getting my commercial bus driver’s license so I will be able to understand the challenges our bus drivers face. Because, while they may not be deciding which buses to drive, I can’t understand their needs unless I actually ride in their seat.

Last modified onFriday, 25 April 2014 05:42