In 1936, during the Great Depression, a High Point company that built and renovated streetcars started a new line of business. That’s how Perley A. Thomas Car Works Inc. became Thomas Built Buses Inc., which now makes more than a third of the school buses in the U.S. Don’t expect the company’s latest venture, launched in May during the nation’s latest recession, to cause a similar shift.
Still, the company, now a subsidiary of Portland, Ore.-based Daimler Trucks North America LLC, is excited about its MyBus, a smaller vehicle aimed at day-care centers, churches, nonprofits, small businesses and other groups and clubs. The activity buses can be equipped with coach seating and overhead storage racks and are safer, it says, than vans.
The product launch comes at a time when many school districts are facing budget cuts, which could keep buses in service longer than usual. North Carolina guidelines call for buses to be replaced after 20 years or 200,000 miles, according to Guilford County Schools Transporation Director Jeff Harris. As of early July, 1,184 fit those criteria, but the state plans to buy only 937 for the coming school year — pending the legislature’s approval of the budget. The picture is even bleaker for 2010-11 — only 522 purchases are planned.
Thomas Built officials won’t discuss whether orders are down. But they say work on the MyBus began in early 2008. “Deliveries of the initial orders are under way,” says Bob West, MyBus project manager. “That’s a fairly quick project schedule.” The vehicle comes in three sizes, designed to transport 14, 20 or 30 passengers. The smallest model doesn’t require a commercial driver’s license in most states. The price? Thomas Built won’t say. “Because of the varying specifications, it can differ from place to place.” Nor will it reveal how many of the vehicles it hopes to sell this year, saying the information is proprietary in a competitive market.
What it will say is that the MyBus rollout has helped stabilize employment at the High Point factory, which employs about 1,300. “Increasing the number of buses that we put down the line helps us maintain efficiency and the staff that we have,” says Mary Aufdemberg, a spokeswoman. “If it does as well as we expect, we would be able to create new jobs down the line.” Most important, she says, it helps the company diversify its customer base. “School-bus purchasing is cyclical. It’s aligned with the start of the school year. Having a product not aligned with school allows us to smooth out production throughout the year.”
Take it off the top
Talk about knocking out layers of management. Bill Dean lost his job this summer as director of Piedmont Triad Research Park, six buildings totaling 554,000 square feet of wet-lab, office, meeting and other space in downtown Winston-Salem. Assuming his duties was President Doug Edgeton, who also is vice president of the park’s parent, Wake Forest University Health Services. In part, the move represents a shift from recruiting — it has 42 tenants that employ more than 850 — to completing its infrastructure. Dean will continue as chairman of the seven-member North Carolina Research Parks Network. He also recently was elected to a two-year term as president of the North American division of the International Association of Science Parks.