When Blue Bird named Britton Smith president earlier this year following the exit of Matthew Stevenson, it signaled more than a changing of the guard. After all, the move came alongside the return of CEO Phil Horlock, who oversaw the creation of the propane school bus market as we know it.
It remains to be seen if or when the youthful looking Smith takes on the CEO title as well, but make no mistake. His seemingly fast ascension in the industry is over two decades in the making and just in time to direct the company’s zero-emission vision, which already has resulted in great success on the stock market.
While it has been just under two years since he joined Blue Bird to lead the electrification strategy, Smith boasts several high-profile leadership tenures since graduating near the top of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and his commission as a division officer and project manager on the USS Pittsburgh Fast Attack Submarine. He followed that as an instructor at the Naval Submarine School.
He then served for seven years as an associate principal for McKinsey, specializing in Fortune 500 public and private equity-owned healthcare, manufacturing and business to business services industries. The latter two put him on a solid trajectory toward school buses. He was also vice president of acquisitions and COO for DFC Global Corporation in London, founded an international financial services marketplace, and was director of strategy and deal advisory for KPMG U.S. Since joining Blue Bird, he steered the OEM toward electric school bus market share dominance.
School Transportation News asked Britton to expand on Blue Bird’s electric school bus strategy, especially in terms of a new partnership with Accelera by Cummins to build 1,000 new ESBs, discuss the role propane and diesel will play in the industry, how Blue Bird is utilizing strategic partnerships, and new school bus safety advances.
School Transportation News: Being relatively new to the industry but backed by relevant experience in other arenas, what has impressed you most about the power of partnerships, in terms of Blue Bird customers, dealers and suppliers? Do you now add utilities to that mix?
Britton Smith: Strong partnerships are the cornerstone of our success, which is evident across our business. Certainly, we are very proud of the exceptional partnerships with our dealer network. Most of our dealers have been part of the Blue Bird family for decades and even through several generations. As the face of Blue Bird to our customers, our dealers have provided excellent service to our customers, including over the past few years through the COVID-19 pandemic and global supply chain challenges.
We also believe strongly in developing strategic long-term partnerships, like those we have with Cummins, Ford, and ROUSH CleanTech. These leading businesses are trusted partners so our customers can have confidence in their school bus purchases regardless of the powertrain they choose for their vehicles. And with the growing demand in EV school buses, we’ve focused even more heavily on developing a robust EV Ecosystem through strong partnerships.
We are going on our sixth year partnering with Accelera by Cummins on our EV powertrain and work closely with them to provide continuous updates and improvements to our product, a benefit of having a partner very dedicated to the EV school bus market. In order to transition to electric school buses, districts will need to establish a high-performing charging infrastructure. This includes partnering with the right charging station providers and, yes, even with local utility companies.
In addition, we believe in developing partnerships with organizations within the school bus industry which have the shared passion for clean transportation such as Moms Clean Air Force, the World Resources Institute, and the many Clean Cities organizations we work with to educate and promote the benefits of going green. We all are stronger together.
STN: What challenges must school bus manufacturers continually stay in front of when providing customer service? What lessons did Blue Bird learn from the supply chain shortages, when vehicle deliveries were and continue to be pushed out months to years?
Smith: We certainly faced significant challenges through the pandemic, including supply chain issues that have impacted bus deliveries to our customers. The one benefit of having worked through these difficult times is we are learning how to better manage our business should we ever face similar challenges in the future. We are working with our current suppliers and adding new ones so we can leverage a larger, more robust supplier base in the future. Our primary focus remains to provide the safest and most reliable school buses to our customers. Our supplier partners continue to be vital in helping us to achieve this mission.
STN: Partnerships were likely crucial to developing the new electric manufacturing facility. What did Blue Bird learn through that process?
Smith: Our new Electric Vehicle Buildup Center, which opened in May of this year, marks a key milestone in Blue Bird’s nearly 100-year history. This facility will enable Blue Bird to significantly increase its production capacity to approximately 5,000 zero-emission school buses annually in the years to come. Before making this significant investment it was critical that our partners shared our dedication to grow this vital part of our business and to continue to be the leaders in the electric school bus industry. That is why we continue to build on our long-term partnerships with companies such as Accelera by Cummins, which fully share our vision to provide industry-leading, zero-emission school buses.
STN: What about the future of internal combustion engines? Regulations aside, the industry will need diesel school buses for years to come. In public filings, Blue Bird has alluded to diesel’s end days. Can you comment on how much longer customers can expect to be able to buy a Vision or All American diesel?
Smith: We are committed to providing our customers with safe and reliable school buses, which have superior performance and meet their student transportation needs. As the leaders in zero and low emission vehicles, we’ve proven that our electric and propane-powered buses can provide exactly that without compromise. I think the exact future of a diesel powertrain in the school bus industry remains somewhat uncertain. The future hinges on the ability of diesel products to provide all the key attributes and benefits that are important to our customers.
STN: At least for the next several years, Blue Bird figures to be the only propane option in town. How does the company avoid growing complacent especially as ESB production will continue to increase? What role is Blue Bird looking for ROUSH CleanTech to play going forward?
Smith: Our propane-powered school buses are and will continue to be one of our most important products in our lineup. In terms of safety, reliability, performance and total cost of ownership, there is simply no better school bus product on the market. Even when other OEMs dabbled in this segment, the Blue Bird propane bus remained the preferred bus of choice in the market. That has a lot to do with the strong partnership we have with ROUSH CleanTech and the superior performance of the Ford powertrain. Although electric school buses are getting a lot of the attention in the industry, propane buses will continue to provide a great, high-performing solution for our customers.
STN: Partnerships also extend to collision mitigation solutions. Amid NHTSA’s recent NPRM on pedestrian automatic braking, what can you share about what Blue Bird is doing to better protection students in the “Danger Zone?”
Smith: Providing the safest school bus in the industry continues to be our core mission. Blue Bird was the first to market with Electronic Stability Control (ESC) for school buses. Our superior body construction, with standard Colorado Rack and Kentucky Pole certification, remains best-in-class for school bus construction. Our standard rear-view camera is also an important feature to provide drivers with improved visibility around the bus. We are continuously evaluating technologies currently available or being introduced in passenger vehicles to determine if they would be a good fit in school bus applications.
STN: Thank you.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the October 2023 issue of School Transportation News.
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