We catch up with Thomas’ president and CEO to talk about the evolution of the school bus manufacturer over the past 100 years and the direction it is headed.
School Transportation News: There have been many changes to this over the past 100 years, but are there a few that especially stand out to you in terms of how Thomas Built Buses has led innovations?
Caley Edgerly: Thomas Built Buses has been at the forefront of a number of innovations in the industry, starting when the company was under the leadership of founder Perley A. Thomas. Perley had a hand in designing the new look and feel of school buses when they converted from wood to steel. Later on, he also had a hand in increasing driver visibility, and in introducing the industry’s first outward opening entrance doors. Most notably for the industry, under his leadership, two of Perley’s sons helped set the national minimum standards for school bus construction. They not only helped standardize safety, but also helped emphasize safety in the industry.
Over the years, Thomas Built Buses continued to rock the industry. We were the first to debut a number of products, including a child restraint system, track flooring, fuel tanks mounted between the frame rails, factory-installed AC, a multiplex electrical system that’s digital rather than analog and structural adhesives.
In the past few months, we’ve riveted the industry with the new Saf-T-Anchor Removable Seat Mounting System, which allows flexibility in seating configurations, and introduced the BusWise Technologies platform. This platform, for the first time, enables a suite of technologies to work together to enhance the pupil transportation experience, while increasing safety for the driver and for school bus passengers and decreasing costs for fleet managers.
And we can’t forget one of our most significant innovations: The introduction of the revolutionary Saf-T-Liner C2 school bus, the first fully-integrated conventional school bus, where the chassis and the body were designed exclusively for each other.
STN: Speaking of the C2, last fall at NAPT Thomas handed over the keys to its 75,000th Saf-T-Liner C2 to a Virginia contractor. How has the C2 evolved over the years and why is it the company’s flagship vehicle?
Edgerly: The Saf-T-Liner C2 is our most popular bus—and for good reason. We consider it our most significant innovation to date, because before the introduction of the C2 a bus body was placed on a truck chassis. The two were never built to work seamlessly together. With the introduction of the Saf-T-Liner C2, the bus was designed and built from top to bottom to work as one cohesive unit, with state-of-the-art features and benefits for our customers. Soon after we debuted the new C2 design in 2004, it became the premier bus in the industry and a bus that changed how other Type Cs are manufactured.
In fact, we built a 275,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art plant in High Point just to manufacture the new C2. Due to its popularity, we completed a $12 million expansion to the C2 plant just last year and just announced yet another expansion to the C2 second shift, which will result in the addition of 200 new jobs.
Over the years, the Saf-T-Liner C2 has evolved to run on alternative fuels, starting with a hybrid model and moving into propane and, most recently, compressed natural gas.
The C2 also has the most advanced features and benefits for our customers of all of our buses. In addition to enhanced visibility, driver ergonomics, durability and safety, the C2 is pre-wired with multiplex wiring and is equipped with Zonar telematics. It is the first bus to debut our new BusWise technologies suite, which offers such features as a 360 degree camera, collision avoidance, lane departure warning and tire pressure monitoring, among others.
STN: What’s been the response to the BusWise technology suite?
Edgerly: The response to BusWise Technologies has been impressive, to say the least. Orders are coming in for a number of the technologies we debuted at NAPT. The factory-installed Perimeter View 360 camera package (PV360) is the most popular technology to date.
We are excited about the adoption of BusWise in the industry and we can’t wait to take the platform even further. We have a number of new technologies in the works that will really revolutionize the school bus industry. BusWise Technologies is a significant differentiator for us moving forward, and we’ve really only touched the tip of the iceberg of what we will be able to do with this technology.
STN: What kind of company and employee celebrations are being planned this year?
Edgerly: We hosted an employee celebration event last month, followed by our annual dealer meeting in the High Point (North Carolina) area. We drew thousands of current and past Thomas Built employees and their families to celebrate with us. Members of the original Thomas family were also in attendance to join in on the fun.
Many of our dealers are taking the celebration on the road. Customers can join our dealers in celebrating our 100th anniversary at local shows throughout the year. And all buses purchased this year will come with commemorative stitching on the headrest and a 100-year anniversary badge on the side of the bus.
On April 24, our fans watched Brad Keslowski as he drove the No. 2 Thomas Built Buses Ford Fusion in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. We’ve also added a number of new items to our company store for all of the Thomas Built collectors out there. In addition to our 100th anniversary commemorative calendar, we are selling apparel, drinkware and office items that commemorate this significant milestone.
STN: The next 100 years is a stretch, but what do the next 10 years look like for Thomas Built Buses and its customers?
Edgerly: The introduction of our BusWise Technologies platform is really a turning point for Thomas Built Buses. In the next 10 years, Thomas Built buses are going to become smarter, more efficient and easier to maintain, thanks to enhanced features on our BusWise platform and a number of other hardware and electronic features.
We will continue to ensure that our buses remain safe, durable and maintain a low total cost of ownership for our customers. For some, this will mean a greater emphasis on alternative fuels, an area in which Thomas Built Buses is and will continue to lead the industry. We already are seeing a heightened interest in propane and compressed natural gas, but I expect to see even more interest in the coming decades.
At Thomas Built Buses, we manufacture premium buses, and we intend not only to maintain that standard, but to remain in the forefront of the industry in the future. We are a company founded in part on innovation. You will see our buses continue to evolve and shape the school bus industry along the way.
STN: Thank you.
Click here to see a photo gallery of Thomas Built Buses throughout their 100-year history.