For Huskey Trailways, 2019 was the family-owned business’ best year financially and their worst year personally.
Co-owner Kent Huskey died at age 55 after routine back surgery.
“It was very sudden. He had some back surgery on a Wednesday, came home on a Thursday, didn’t wake up on Friday,” said Julie Huskey, adding that the autopsy said he passed away of congestive heart failure due to the surgery. “His death changed everything.”
Married a month shy of 32 years, she and Kent were constant companions. She oversaw the back-office operations while he focused on employees and customers. Without Kent, Huskey and their daughters, Katie Brunner and Mollie Pruneau, had to decide what to do with the company.
“The last two years have been whirlwind,” said Huskey, adding that she and her daughters found themselves “really buckling down to figure what the future of the business looked like.”
The tragedy has brought them closer. While Pruneau was originally active in the marketing and booking department, she had to step up to fill her dad’s shoes. The mother of two now oversees the entire business operations along with her past duties. Brunner decided to leave her career of eight years as an elementary teacher to take over the Missouri company’s HR duties and oversee compliance.
“The three of us are closer now than we’ve ever been,” Huskey said. “When he passed, I never thought about not doing what we were doing. But when the pandemic hit, we thought, ‘OK, is God telling us something? Should we just jump out?’ There was a moment when I thought, ‘Oh, no, what am I going to do?’ Kent always told me I was a strong person. There were times I didn’t feel like a strong person and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Like nearly everyone in the industry, the Huskey family felt like they were falling off a cliff when pandemic shutdown orders hit. The three women arrived home from a Trailways conference in March, and the next week everything changed for the business located south of St. Louis.
“We were oversold one day, and the next day, we had no buses on the road. It was just a screeching halt,” Huskey said.
Still, trading her career for the family business was a good fit for Brunner, a mother of four.
“It’s just a whole different environment,” she said. “It’s more family-friendly and flexible. I can bring my kids to work. Everybody at work is family. Our mechanics, dispatchers and drivers are family.”
In the past two years, they have certified the business — now completely owned by Huskey — woman-owned. It was a lot of work but worth it, she says. Pruneau and Brunner are board members. The designation gives them an advantage in bidding on federal contracts. They have been bouncing back with military contracts and luxury tours.
‘Tested to the limits’
“We’re going strong now but we’ve been tested in the past two years,” said Huskey. “It’s not back to pre-COVID, but we’re thankful for what we got. I’m very thankful for the people who worked with us and believed in us.”
It was hard not to have Kent around when the company went through the challenge of the pandemic. For so long, he was the one with the answers.
“During the pandemic, he wasn’t here to tell us what to do,” Pruneau said. “We had to kind of come together. We would often ask ourselves, ‘What would dad be doing in this situation? How we he fix it? He always had the answer for everything.’”
Brunner and Pruneau provided their mom with emotional support. Huskey says the past two years have been transformational for her personally.
“This has brought me out of my shell and made me a different person,” Huskey said. “I feel like I’m a different person today and a stronger person. It’s a whole different dynamic.”
The women’s entrepreneurial pursuits expand beyond the bus world. Before the pandemic, Huskey and Pruneau opened a brick-and-mortar boutique, but it transitioned into an e-commerce-only because of COVID-19 restrictions.
About a year ago, while things were still slow in the bus business, they were approached to acquire a local graphic design and sign shop. They had a background in vinyl graphics, banners and signs since 2010 when they purchased their own equipment to create the graphics for their vehicles.
They saw the acquisition as an opportunity to generate a new revenue stream as they waited for their bus business to return to normal. The business has been very successful so far, and the women have been able to complete orders while managing the operations of Huskey Trailways.
Huskey Trailways began in 1996, when the family acquired the school bus business run by Kent’s dad and quickly expanded into motorcoaches after spotting an opportunity for casino runs. They watched Kent’s mom and grandmother suffer through a miserable trip with a bus company and knew they could provide better service.
Before taking over his dad’s transportation company, Kent operated a cattle farm, worked as a mechanic at a local school district and would complete extra activity trips for his father.
Then, around 1996, Kent’s father lost a long-time local school bus contract to a nationwide provider.
“My father-in-law was like, ‘You know what? I’m done. I don’t want to have anything to do with the buses,’” said Huskey. “And my husband was like, ‘I’m young, I need to do something.’ So, they swapped a couple of heads of cattle and some tractors for a couple of school buses. A year after we started, we bought our first motorcoach, then it was like every six months after that.”
Since then, the company has grown to nearly 50 employees and a fleet of about 55 vehicles, more than half of which are motorcoaches ranging from 40 to 56 passengers. The rest is made up of shuttle vans, school buses, a party bus and some mini coaches.
When Kent passed away, the family was amazed at the support of the industry.
More than 500 people attended his funeral, and more than 100 flower arrangements or plants were sent to his family.
“It showed us the love from the bus industry,” said Huskey, “There was phone call after phone call.”
Brunner says she knew her dad was well-known in the community but she didn’t know he had such a big reach across the country.
Huskey and her daughters say they feel his presence in their lives.
“His spirit will live on through the company for years to come,” Huskey said.