“It’s not only in our blood, but it’s also in our name,” was one of the marketing slogans John Busskohl remembers his family’s business using in its early years.
As the grandson of one of the country’s earliest bus operators, there’s no question that his love of buses is in his genetic makeup.
While the family business eventually became part of a national operation, Busskohl continued to contribute to the industry in a variety of roles. His most recent is as senior regional sales manager for Icomera.
“I thank the Lord every day for the opportunity I was given by my grandfather,” said Busskohl, who believes his story shows that others can find a place in the industry after they are no longer bus operators. “I’m also thankful that our business changed the way it did and opened more doors for me.”
Family involvement started in 1928
His grandfather Jack Busskhol and his brother Carl started Arrow Stage Lines nearly a century ago with a 1928 Buick touring car they chopped and stretched into a bus. It wasn’t long before manufacturers picked up on the trend.
When the federal government began handing out operating permits for this new mode of transportation, the Busskohl brothers became the first holders of a DOT permit for their territory.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of competition to serve rural Nebraska and Iowa, and the brothers were able to seize their opportunity. They began running scheduled services between Sioux City, Iowa, and Norfolk, Nebraska. Farming was the family’s main business at the time, but the bus business quickly grew and eventually became the focus.
Jack and Carl retired in the late 1960s to early ‘70s and sold the business to their two sons: Busskohl’s dad, Chuck, and his cousin, Doyle Busskohl.
“My whole childhood I grew up in it,” Busskohl said. “I spent a lot of time at the bus garage cleaning buses and doing whatever my dad told me to do.
“We had a farm, as well, with cattle and lambs. If I wasn’t working on our farm, I was working out at the bus garage. It’s just the work ethic that they wanted to instill in us. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Tried another direction
The youngest of his siblings and cousins, Busskohl initially didn’t see where he fit into the family bus business. So, he headed to Iowa State University, where he earned an engineering degree. After graduation, he was hired by Ingersoll Rand as a sales engineer.
As he was building his career, the family business split. For years, Doyle, in Nebraska, and Chuck, in Sioux City, ran the business together. There was always a desire to expand, but the industry was regulated. When deregulation happened in the early 1980s, they decided to expand to the Sunbelt to offset the slow season during the Midwest’s harsh winter.
They decided on Arizona because it was one of the few states, along with Florida and Texas, that didn’t adopt state regulations after the federal government deregulated the industry.
“You could just go in and operate without any kind of operating authority,” Busskohl said. “They opened in Phoenix in 1986, the year I graduated from college. After a few years of operation, Phoenix was doing half the revenue of the entire company. My dad and Doyle decided at that time to split the company. My dad took Phoenix, and Doyle kept the rest of the company in the Midwest.”
Both operations continued under the name Arrow Stage Lines, and Chuck and Doyle had a gentlemen’s agreement not to compete with each other.
Doyle’s portion of the business continues today, serving a large swath of the Midwest and Western U.S., led by Doyle’s son Steve and his two sons Luke and Alex.
“So great to see the fourth generation taking the reins,” Busskohl said.
In the early ‘90s, Busskohl’s sister left the company, leaving his brother and dad in Phoenix. The company continued to grow quickly.
“At the time I was living in Chicago, not enjoying the weather, when my dad asked if I’d be interested in coming back to the business because they were growing so fast and needed help. I jumped at the opportunity,” said Busskohl, who initially led the company’s sales and marketing effort.
The sales and marketing role helped him quickly get to know the customers, understand their needs and how to organizationally meet them through high-touch customer service and operational excellence.
“Phoenix was a tremendous market, especially in the wintertime with professional sports and convention activity,” Busskohl said. “In the summer months, we got very heavily involved with over-the-road tours.”
The company grew quickly to 160 employees and 100 coaches. Clients included Arizona State University.
Busskohl and his brother ran the operations, with their dad as the adviser. Chuck, a big-picture thinker, still was heavily involved in the industry. In 1971, he helped launch the United Bus Owners of America, which became the United Motorcoach Association. He was also an early member of the National Motorcoach Network, which is now IMG.
“His mentality was always there’s plenty of business for everybody. We need to be working together. We need to pool our resources where we can to help each other save money,” Busskohl said.
Time to sell
One day, his dad was contacted by a venture capital firm that was interested in doing an industry roll-up of private motorcoach carriers to take public. At this point, Busskohl and his brother owned half the business. But their dad couldn’t retire until he was bought out of the business entirely. The timing for the deal was good because there were a lot of operators in similar situations as Chuck, who was at retirement age but lacked an exit strategy.
They decided to take the deal, along with five other companies, and became one of the founders of Coach USA.
The deal not only let his dad retire but gave his brother the ability to pursue opportunities outside the industry. But Busskohl, who had been slow to join the family business, wasn’t ready to step away. He went to work for Coach USA, initially as the general manager in Phoenix before he was promoted to regional vice president running the western U.S. operations.
The United Kingdom-based Stagecoach Group eventually bought the company but sold off parts after the 9/11 terror attacks led to a temporary halt of business travel and conventions, causing industry revenues to plunge nearly overnight.
There were ups and downs through a series of other owners, eventually convincing Busskohl it was time to exercise the exit clause in his contract.
“I was absolutely terrified when I was looking at leaving because I had been basically with the same company for 16 years and I was thinking about what else I could do,” Busskohl said. “I didn’t realize there were gobs of opportunities, especially given the background that I had.”
Exploring the industry
He then went to work for a private equity-owned company TecTrans involved in transit contracting. He was COO for that company for four years before it was sold to the French company Keolis.
He then went to work as CEO for a struggling private equity-owned motorcoach company called Ryan’s Express but couldn’t revive it, though he learned a lot about how to run a cash-strapped business.
“I love what I do. I love the business,” he said. “I love to work. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t have something to do with my mind. I’ve had periods of time where I’ve had a long time off from working, and I don’t enjoy it.”
He was CEO of Silverado Stages for a few years and then joined ABC Companies, selling Van Hools for the West region. Like many, he was sidelined when COVID-19 hit in 2020. He used some of his downtime to work on the relief efforts for the industry, supporting the Gang of 11. Now living in the Dallas area, he reached out to Texas congressional leaders for support.
Around that time, he was contacted about Icomera. He did some research and was impressed with what he learned.
“They’re involved with onboard technology, Wi-Fi, entertainment, and video surveillance, and all the different technology needed to operate buses and trains and provide passenger amenities. I deployed many of those systems to fleets in my past and had not so great experiences.”
Pulling it all together
Working for the company brings together his varied industry experiences.
“It’s fun to sell for Icomera because it’s a great problem-solver for businesses and helps make them safer, more efficient and address passenger needs,” Busskohl said. “The passenger amenities that it provides are second to none. The third most important thing for passengers these days is Wi-Fi. The first two are being on time and being safe.”
Busskohl thinks his journey is a reminder that the industry is full of opportunities, especially for people who grew up in the business.
“The private motorcoach segment is just one side of the business,” he said. “There’s the whole transit world out there. You have the school bus industry, trains and even passenger water vessels out there. It translates into anything to do with moving the public in vehicles. You can transition over to the vendor side. I know folks who are out there in the consulting world now for transportation companies.”
He considers himself a bit of a unicorn because there isn’t much he hasn’t touched in the transportation industry: motorcoach, transit, sales, marketing, operations, leadership acquisitions and vendor side technology.
“I could have never predicted this career path,” he said. “But I just kept myself open to opportunities as they came along.”