Diving and begging for sales in a shrinking industry

Over 30+ years of selling buses I did some strange things to close deals. One of the owners of a quality, small, Connecticut charter operation mentioned in a phone call that his swimming pool liner had a leak. He joked that, since I was a diver, if I’d patch the pool liner he’d buy a coach.

I stuffed scuba gear in the trunk and rocketed to his place. By day’s end… to his surprise, the pool didn’t leak AND he’d ordered a bus.

These partners were terrific guys working their butts off.  They just closed—the fourth small New England operators to either quit or sell to a larger operation in the past few months. The number of available coaches in New England will diminish.

Our industry is shrinking for a variety of reasons that seem to target small and mid-sized operators. The cost of equipment, insurance woes, predatory regulation and a driver shortage are among them. I lack the power (and brains) to roll any of those things back, but it’s worthwhile to highlight some of the consequences of squashing our industry.

In the short term, some larger companies benefit from competitors closing or being swallowed, but what of the long term?

First, the dwindling national fleet means that during peak periods the public is either forced to drive their cars (statistically much more dangerous) or to forgo travel.

Small, often family- and minority-owned, companies have been a traditional market for used coaches. One reason “experienced” coach values are down is because the folks who bought them are gone.

The big guys don’t love that, but they can, at least for now, force manufacturers to give reasonable trade values. Eventually economics will catch up, in the form of even lower values or higher new-coach prices.

Small companies have been real innovators, nimbly identifying or creating new services or markets in order to survive. As they disappear, so does that creativity.

The national bus fleet is a critical resource in responding to certain catastrophes. Following Hurricane Katrina, a large fleet of public sector buses remained parked while the private sector managed to evacuate thousands of people to shelters. What happens in the future when a smaller fleet means fewer coaches available to help?

In the event of a terrorist attack, weather event or the need to move police or troops in a hurry… fewer buses may mean that a difficult job becomes impossible.

We subsidize Amtrak because we needed passenger trains to fight World War II, but today pummel an industry that creates, rather than absorbs, revenue and is more flexible than railroads.

Fewer buses means rural areas have fewer options and depend on bigger companies deadheading from distant cities.

Because I am a dinosaur, my view may be skewed, but we need to figure out which forces shrinking our industry are evolution and which artificial ones are desiccating the safest, most ecologically efficient form of transportation.

A customer opened a package while I was in his office. Inside was a battery-powered fish, mounted on a plaque, that flopped around and talked whenever someone entered the room.

I asked, “What do I need to do to sell you a bus?” Carl, a great kidder, said “You could kneel in front of my desk and beg.”

At that moment his dispatcher stuck his head in the door. He looked at me kneeling on the floor, Carl behind his desk and the flopping fish babbling on the wall, shook his head and slowly pushed the door shut.

That company has closed, too.  Be nice to your bus salespersons… their job is tough.


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