Kevin Bangston is no stranger to Thomas Built Buses. A former chief financial officer for the school bus manufacturer, Bangston assumed the president and CEO role last month, succeeding Caley Edgerly, who took a general manager position earlier this year with parent company Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA).
Bangston has spent his career as a Daimler guy, starting at DTNA 20 years ago as director of credit and dealer analysis before making his way to Thomas Buses four-and-a-half years later. Since 2008, he’s served in multiple roles for Daimler, most recently as general manager of distribution network development.
School Transportation News caught up with him prior to the July 4th weekend to discuss challenges as well as opportunities for his administration and the entire industry.
STN: How are you looking to leverage your distribution experience to help weather the current supply chain issues affecting automotive manufacturing?
Bangston: Supporting the Freightliner and Western Star dealer network has been a great primer for navigating some of the current supply chain constraints. Starting in the mid to late [second quarter] timeframe of last year, trucking companies and the truck drivers they employ really emerged as one of our [nation’s]greatest heroes. Whether it was food, medicines, or — forgive me for this one — toilet paper, Americans and people all across the world needed essential goods. It was our customers who quite literally kept the world moving, and it was our dealers who in turn kept them moving. We all know trucks and buses for that matter will eventually need service, and it’s how we as a company react when that service is required that really distinguishes our approach. In those early days, getting the right part to the right location at the right time, or even just ensuring we were cascading the right health and safety protocols to our dealers so they could continue servicing the resupply was crucial. It meant constant communication with dealers, federal and state authorities, and with Tier 1 to Tier 3 suppliers. It meant constant tracking of parts shipments across a global supply chain. And it meant having the customer on the road again as quickly as we could.
The downstream effect that then came back around to our supply chain, as a result, requires a lot of the same proactive communication, constant tracking, and widespread coordination. The difference is that now we’re reaching down and not only tracking Tier 3 but also down to the raw material level to ensure all of our suppliers have what they need to produce components and subcomponents. Where we can, we’ve stepped in with our resources to help them source material and, ultimately, keep our full vehicle assembly moving. It’s not perfect, and we’ve had impacts like all industries, but our commitment always has been and always will be to communicate openly and transparently with our customers. We respect they have businesses they need to run, and our chief commitment is to keep them moving. If for some reason we can’t deliver for them against the timeline we’ve stated, we’re going to make sure they know it so they can enact their own contingency planning.
STN: What are your thoughts on the current economy, school bus purchasing coming out of the pandemic, and the Fed raising interest rates in 2023?
Bangston: It’s been a long time since we’ve seen economic activity at this current pace and — as great as that is — it’s hard not to appreciate the reason and the economic hardships of last year, when stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders constrained a lot of service-related economic activity. That said, I’ve read about and seen proof points that some of the worst projections for tax revenue shortfalls haven’t come to fruition. In fact, there are some municipalities that came in with substantial surpluses last year, and now we’re beginning to see nearly the entire country re-open. I don’t think that immediately translates to exorbitant spending by local and state government, but it does mean that the ordering activity we’re seeing is not what we originally feared it may be. In fact, and I won’t call it strong, but it’s not bad all things considered.
I’m very excited to see that districts across the country will be back in person [for the coming] school year. It’s an important thing for the kids, it’s important for the parents and it’s important for our society. As far as Fed projections, I certainly don’t look forward to those coming to fruition, but if they do, it’s hard not to appreciate that we’ve seen relatively little inflation since the last downturn and that some small degree of rising rates to keep it in check is to be expected. I’m also fairly confident at a personal level that we are looking at a fairly robust and sustained period of growth coming for our economy, and that should bode well for us all.
STN: What lessons did you learn in Japan as the head of Mitsubishi Fuso Buses that might assist with the evolution of Thomas’ electric school buses?
Bangston: While I was at Fuso, we were in the early phases of EV development with the eCanter product. In some ways that was very similar to the where we are now with the C2 Jouley product. While Jouley is much further along now from a product standpoint, we are still very early in the customer adoption phase and the learnings, seemingly new every day, are very much in line with our learnings at Fuso. This is by far the most disruptive moment in the automobile industry in quite some time and the key to it all is to be as agile, yet thoughtful, in the process.
STN: Can you comment further on the electric path going forward?
Bangston: As you know, at Thomas Built Buses, we’ve already delivered more than 50 battery electric Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouleys with many more planned to be delivered this year and early feedback is outstanding. One of the most interesting aspects of the Jouley is the V2G capability which has helped attract the interest of utilities, which in some instances are finding ways to help support their local school districts offset acquisition costs in exchange for energy storage. It’s a win for the district, a win for the utility, and it’s a win for the students. As we continue to roll out this technology, I believe we’ll see more non-traditional players, meaning utilities here, start to collaborate in the space.
Also, coming from our larger parent company, Daimler Trucks North America, I’m really excited by the fact that, beyond Jouley, the collective electric portfolio at DTNA continues to grow. We go into early production of the Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp MT50e electric chassis later this year and that chassis, designed for parcel and final mile delivery, is another perfectly suited application for EV technology. Then, late next year we start production of the Freightliner eCascadia, an electric Class 8, which will be followed shortly by our Freighliner eM2, a Class 6/7. So, when you look at the collective portfolio we’re bringing forward as a company, I think it’s clear we’re highly committed to offer our customers, all of our customers, a choice of the kind of propulsion system they want to suit their need and use case.
STN: It looks as though electric school buses might receive less funding in the federal infrastructure bill then was originally discussed. What are your thoughts on that?
Bangston: There’s still a way to go for any of the current proposals and eventual passage, so I won’t speculate on if and where monies will be allocated just yet. I will say that I’m hopeful that a preponderance of our congressional representatives recognize the importance of electrifying student transportation and lend their support to incentivizing the purchase of electric school buses. It will help spur on early adoption of the technology and school buses are, after all, a great use case for the zero-emission technology.
STN: Thank you.