With a commitment to manufacture the world’s finest school buses, Blue Bird is at the forefront of safety, cost of ownership and alternative fuel use, and is the undisputed leader in the application of propane.
It’s familiar to all of us: the silhouette of the soaring bird above the entrance door to the school buses we all rode as kids. Blue Bird, the iconic brand, is synonymous with the school bus.
In 1927, Albert L. Luce Sr. built a school bus at his Ford agency in rural Georgia on a Ford Model T chassis, calling it the “Blue Bird No. 1”. At the time, Mr. Luce had no idea the impact his bus would have on American culture and future school children.
Once in the school bus business, Luce turned his company’s goal toward safety improvements. The very first improvement was the creation of an all-steel bus body, set on a chassis to lift the children above the crash zone: something that, to this day, is believed to be an achievement first made by Albert Luce nearly 80 years ago.
As the world’s oldest operating manufacturer of school buses, Blue Bird’s vehicles can be found in all corners of the globe, transporting students safely to school.
That’s what you’ll find at the center of every strategy, decision, and value at Blue Bird today: keeping school children safe. This drives every decision made by the company’s leadership and employees. How does the company do this? By focusing on manufacturing the world’s finest school buses.
The result of this singular-focus approach by the company drives a “One Blue Bird” culture, united to provide the students of the world with easy, reliable, and safe ways to get to class.
This focus on safety, as well as green practices and industry innovations, makes Blue Bird one of the most highly regarded manufacturers of the last century in the United States.
Everyone can agree that when it comes to transporting our children, safety is the utmost concern. With this in mind, Blue Bird’s engineers have developed industry-leading safety enhancements in an effort to make their buses the safest vehicles to ride in.
They have also worked with suppliers to bring new safety features to the school bus market, such as Electronic Stability Control. The company’s buses are also able to maneuver through traffic safely with the industry’s best turning radius.
“Over the years, Blue Bird has introduced many innovations related to safety and reliability that have differentiated us,” shared Phil Horlock, President and CEO of Blue Bird Corporation. “In many instances, once a new standard is set within the company, it is adopted by a state or a school district, and even by the federal government, as a new school bus standard. We’ve also worked with regulators to develop new specifications collaboratively.”
Blue Bird’s most popular product, the Blue Bird Vision, gets its well-earned name from the aggressive slope of its hood, which allows the driver to see small children closer to the bumper. Blue Bird’s engineers accomplished the sloped hood by lowering the engine and radiator.
But that’s not all. Perhaps the most critical component of safety success for Blue Bird entails a chassis designed and manufactured specifically for a school bus application.
“Our competitors are truck companies,” Horlock said. “They put a bus body on a chassis that can be used for many different purposes. We focus strictly on school buses and that’s what makes us different. We design, engineer, and manufacture a purpose-built product from the ground up. Everything we do is about transporting children to and from school—safely, reliably, and efficiently.”
The leadership at Blue Bird works with the best in the business to build a bus that provides the safest and most reliable transportation for children. With an average tenure of 15 years, a customer-driven focus, and a framework centered on always doing better, Blue Bird’s employees are the foundation on which the company builds its success.
“We have amazing and loyal employees at Blue Bird who take pride in their jobs,” said Horlock. “We strive to retain the family atmosphere that the Luce family created so many years ago. As an example, we employ a full-time chaplain and hold a service at our plant every other week. Our employees appreciate it and it’s part of our heritage.”
About 10 years ago, however, the company came out of a complicated ownership period and knew they had to establish a new foundation on which employees could thrive.
“Some of our employees had been through tough times with the company, but have seen a lot of good times since.” Horlock said. “We did what I like to call a cultural ‘reset’ about four years ago, moving us from a company that had weathered tough times and survived, to one that thrives on being the best we can be, pursuing new opportunities and growing our business together. This is a winning culture that looks forward.”
The Blue Bird Culture framework, which is on display in every conference room at the company, is a unique approach to defining a unique company. Horlock even shared that several of their partners and suppliers had commented on the vibrancy of the company’s culture goals, stating that they could see it reflected in their interactions with Blue Bird.
By instituting a concrete culture for employees to get behind, Blue Bird has solidified its one team behind the company’s one focus: building the world’s finest school buses.
Blue Going Green
Perhaps one of the highlights of Horlock’s conversation with BOSS Magazine was that we had the chance to speak with him just after he presented to a special committee formed by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.
He, along with other presenters from the industry, had the opportunity to discuss alternative fuel vehicles to accelerate adoption in the field. The emphasis was specifically on affordable green solutions.
“Affordability can be an issue for a school district,” Horlock said. “We were able to get the Senate committee’s attention because our products are affordable: it only takes a couple of years for districts to reap the financial benefits of switching to propane. Our buses are built to last a minimum of 15 years: this means over $45,000 in savings over that time. That’s about half the price of the bus.”
With Horlock’s recommendation of incentivizing the purchase of propane school buses, the Senate committee now has some resources to hopefully apply to Blue Bird’s work towards greener transportation, not just for school children, but for all of Georgia’s residents.
Around 20 percent of Blue Bird’s sales are of buses that run on propane, an alternative fuel source. The company holds the vast majority of the propane-powered bus market (about 90 percent) and has nearly 10,000 propane buses on the road today. Blue Bird also holds a 60 percent market share of the compressed natural gas (CNG) market.
“Both are terrific products and great solutions for many municipalities,” Horlock said of the company’s alternative fuel offerings.
Due to the nature of the pressurized fuel, CNG fuel tanks are thicker and heavier, which makes it a more expensive product. But both propane and CNG emit far less harmful toxins into the environment than traditional diesel-run buses, making them great options for environmentally-conscious school districts. Propane enjoys the position of providing the lowest total cost of ownership for school districts while being environmentally friendly.
However, the company is making impressive strides with diesel engines as well. Its all-new 5-liter V8 diesel engine, manufactured by Cummins, employs modern technology and is lightweight, making it a more fuel efficient and affordable option. “The affordability aspect features highly in all of our product decisions,” added Horlock.
Blue Bird is also eco-conscious in its manufacturing process. From the seats on school buses—which use re-bonded and re-glued recycled material—to rubber isolators made from old tires, Blue Bird ensures each and every component is as environmentally-friendly as possible.
And just this fall, Blue Bird plans to adopt a process where the company recaptures the heat dispelled from the welding process and feeds it through the company’s ductwork to heat the space.
One Focus, Strengthened by Partnerships
Horlock described the auto business as a community, where vehicle manufacturers and suppliers know each other well and build lasting partnerships. When he made the transition from a career at Ford Motor Company to President and CEO of Blue Bird Corporation, this was more apparent than ever.
It’s thanks in part to Horlock’s time at Ford that today the two companies enjoy a mutually beneficial partnership. In 2002, Blue Bird relied on a chassis purchased from Ford before the company started manufacturing its own. Over the last five years, the companies have built a prominent and thriving engine relationship that powers many of Blue Bird’s school buses.
“Satisfying customers is the number one objective of both Ford and Blue Bird,” said Horlock. “I learned a lot from my three decades at Ford and it prepared me well for my current position. I’ve been able to take some of those important learnings and apply them to Blue Bird.”
Blue Bird works with nearly 400 companies that aren’t just suppliers: they are valued partners. In an attempt to continue to build stronger relationships, share the past year's successes, communicate future objectives, and discuss new products and processes, Blue Bird hosts an annual Supplier Conference.
The company invites its top 100 suppliers that represent approximately $600 million in products and services supplied to Blue Bird to the three-day gathering. The first day enables numerous suppliers to showcase their latest technology and services.
The following days, Blue Bird shares where its priorities are for the next few years, as well as what they are looking for in terms of partnerships and products. An award ceremony and dinner, as well as a charity golf tournament, round out a fun few days that are also incredibly productive and beneficial for all involved. Phil Horlock describes the Supplier of the Year award and why it’s so important to how Blue Bird does business:
“We continually seek suppliers that are on the forefront of technology and innovation. Better materials, improved manufacturing processes, safety enhancements, and assembly technologies are just a few areas that we constantly investigate in order to exceed customers’ expectations,” he said.
“Hendrickson, who was Blue Bird’s 2016 Supplier of the Year, is a great example of an organization that pursues ways to leverage technology and drive efficiencies. Not only do they demonstrate outstanding quality and service, but bring us designs that reduce weight and enhance fuel economy, as well as products that improve performance for our drivers and passengers.”
The two companies—along with ROUSH CleanTech, which designs and supplies the fuel system—recently debuted two all-new engines for Blue Bird’s buses: gasoline and CNG. The strength of this partnership goes even further, as the Ford/ROUSH CleanTech powertrains and fuel systems are all exclusive to Blue Bird, and the partnership also powers the company’s industry-leading propane solution.
Blue Bird’s relationships with Allison Transmission, and recently Eaton Transmission, have allowed the company to give its customers more choice when it comes to customizing an order.
With nearly 11,000 buses already built this year, the average order for a specific configuration of a bus is two. That means over 5,000 different configurations were put on the road in 2016. This customization for each bus ordered is made possible by these strong partnerships with suppliers.
Dedicated maintenance, service, and a commitment to the brand from Blue Bird’s expansive dealership network also helps guarantee customer satisfaction. Its franchised dealers operating throughout North America—many of them second or third generation owned—are specifically trained and dedicated to servicing Blue Bird school buses.
“Our dealers are a vital part of the Blue Bird enterprise,” Horlock said, “because our common goal of selling and servicing school buses and satisfying our customers is their key focus. While our dealers might work on other buses, more than 80 percent are dedicated exclusively to servicing and taking care of Blue Bird school buses before other types of transportation. This singular focus parallels how we run our business and is a very different approach from our competitors—and it works.”
One Blue Bird
It’s not hard to see: Blue Bird employees know how to build quality school buses. The leadership also knows how to create a culture that supports these employees, strengthens supplier relationships, and creates the innovative and differentiated products that customers want and need.
Blue Bird’s “One Team, One Blue Bird” approach has made this manufacturer the very best in the industry.
“We take pride in it,” Horlock said. “This is our legacy.”
The company will be celebrating 90 successful years next year. Blue Bird’s goals going forward? Continue to focus on manufacturing safe and reliable school buses, and introducing innovative and affordable products and features that both surprise and delight its customers.
We come to work every day with one common goal: to design, build, sell, and service the world's finest school bus. That's what we do—no distractions, no competing priorities. We are heirs to a rich legacy, one of listening to our customers, embracing their needs, and delivering innovations that lead the market.
We commit ourselves to four driving priorities—safety, quality, durability, and serviceability. We embody the interests of every child that rides us, every driver that drives us, every service technician that services us, and every district that buys us. More than a business, this work is our heritage, and we have been at it since 1927—that's purpose driven.
We are singularly focused on building and selling school buses that customers want and value. The safety of schoolchildren is at the center of all that we do and we will strive every day, just as we have since our beginning in 1927, to provide an unparalleled and affordable product in terms of safety, quality, durability, and serviceability.
We will be easy to do business with, responsive to our customers' wants and needs, and provide prompt after-sale support in parts and service through a professional, high-qualified distribution network. Customer satisfaction is our top priority.
Blue Bird HQ
402 Blue Bird Blvd
Fort Valley, GA 31030