Back to January 2011 home page

REGIONALREPORT Triad

Green means go for bus maker

In business since 1916, Thomas Built Buses has a well-known brand but faces significant challenges. Domestic sales for all school-bus manufacturers have fallen each year since 2006. Just 32,632 were sold in 2009, down 24% from 2000. High Point-based Thomas Built, now part of German automaker Daimler AG, expected to produce 10,000 to 12,000 buses in 2010. It recently started exporting again after a five-year hiatus. Kelley Platt, 52, a Duke University MBA grad, took over as CEO at the beginning of 2010.

Why did the company stop exporting?
Mainly because there was way too much business in the U.S. Exchange rates being what they were, exports of commercial vehicles, in general, from the U.S. to other countries declined significantly.

Why did it start exporting again?
The U.S. dollar is at some historic low levels, which makes any type of exports much more viable, as well as the fact that the domestic commercial-vehicle industry has declined significantly in the last couple years.

You’ve gotten better-than-expected demand for environmentally friendlier buses, including hybrids and those that use compressed natural gas. Why?
There’s a growing concern in the U.S. about the emissions environment and what vehicles are doing, so people are looking for alternatives. That has been fueled to a large extent by funding available from the U.S. government to help offset some of the cost of alternative-powered vehicles.

What happens if that federal money goes away or shrinks significantly?
With diesel fuel at $3 a gallon and some of the components for alternative-powered vehicles so expensive, you can’t write a business case to buy environmentally friendly buses just because of fuel savings. For the number to increase, you have to have federal subsidies and/or an increase in the cost of diesel.

Thomas Built is on track to become the largest maker of hybrid electric school buses in the U.S. What does that mean?
We feel like we have put more hybrid buses on the road this year than other manufacturers. That’s not information that I have a third-party source for, but we’ve put over 60 on the road this year and have significant orders for additional buses. We’re confident that we’ve got more out there than anybody else.

What percentage of revenue will come from alternative-fuel buses in five to 10 years?
If diesel fuel prices continue to increase and the federal government continues to provide some level of assistance for that, I would not be surprised to see alternative-fuel vehicles get up to 15 to 25% of the marketplace.

Are there other technologies on the horizon that will push current technology aside?
We’re developing a propane bus that we’ll have on the market in 2012. Propane buses are available from other manufacturers already. There’s the potential for all-electric vehicles and vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Five to 10 years from now, there may be something out there that we don’t even know about today.

High Point City Council offered Polo Ralph Lauren up to $400,000 in incentives and up to $600,000 in infrastructure improvements to set up a distribution center in a vacated furniture plant. The New York-based apparel maker already employs 1,100 in the city, and the expansion it’s planning could create as many as 400 jobs. It didn’t immediately accept the city’s offer. Plans call for the center to open in April.

 

Cutting Timberlake

Lexington Home Brands and Lexington-based Bob Timberlake Inc. ended their 20-year relationship in December. Lexington will continue to sell The World of Bob Timberlake furniture line until its inventory is depleted. A Timberlake executive says the relationship has been rocky for the past eight years. Among other things, Timberlake fought Lexington’s desire to make the furniture overseas.

HIGH POINT — Just 71,416 people attended the fall furniture market, 5% fewer than last year. The High Point Market Authority says the number of buyers was flat. Attendance was down more than 8% from the spring market.

WINSTON-SALEMPepsiCo will add 195 jobs within three years at its call center here, bringing local employment to about 1,065. The Purchase, N.Y.-based company is closing three of its seven call centers.

HIGH POINT
High Point University plans to add at least 100 workers by the end of August, bringing employment to nearly 1,000. That’s more than double the 462 it employed five years ago.

WINSTON-SALEM — Round Rock, Texas-based Dell finally shut down its computer-assembly plant here after four reprieves. The plant opened in October 2005 and employed about 500.

SEAGROVEFlorida Production Engineering plans to open a factory that will employ 96 within three years. The company, part of Dayton, Ohio-based Ernie Green Industries, makes plastic automotive parts. The average annual salary will be $30,975; the Randolph County average is $29,172.

ASHEBOROMalt-O-Meal, a Northfield, Minn.-based cereal maker, will add 80 jobs within three years, boosting employment to about 280. The average annual wage for the new jobs will be $34,508, about $5,000 more than the Randolph County average.

ARCHDALEFuture Foam planned to move operations here from Hickory by the end of the year. The Council Bluffs, Iowa-based company will employ up to 70 making foam for the furniture, bedding, automotive, construction and home-improvement sectors.

MOUNT AIRY — Steel-wire maker Insteel Industries paid $51.1 million for some assets of Houston-based Ivy Steel & Wire, including part of the company’s inventory and four factories. The move should help Insteel in the Northeast, Midwest and Florida.