Jeff Polzien was a certified public accountant confronted with an opportunity to purchase three old buses from a defunct tour operator. Suddenly he was in the bus business.
He spent 35 years building two companies with nearly 500 motorcoaches and school buses before selling majority stakes in them in 2018.
Polzien, however, will continue to pursue his passion for transportation as he assumes the chairmanship of the United Motorcoach Association during Motorcoach EXPO 2020 in Nashville this month.
“I’m a CPA, and I didn’t want to crank out tax returns for the rest of my life. I was looking for a business to own and operate,” Polzien said. “I have always liked transportation and trains and airplanes. I’m a pilot. An opportunity to buy some buses just fell in my lap. I started a company from scratch in 1984.”
That was a good time for an inexperienced operator to try to break into the motorcoach business, he believed.
“I started right as the industry was deregulated. I brought no preconceived notions of how a bus company should be run, so I learned to compete in the free market,” he said. “The regulated carriers weren’t used to competing and struggled for a long time. There was a lot of turmoil and openings in the market. I thrived on that and it gave me a lot of growth over the first 10 years or so.”
Red Carpet Charters grew from its base in Oklahoma City and operated 45 motorcoaches with satellite facilities in Tulsa and Dallas-Fort Worth. Student Transportation Services LLC was launched in 2005 and grew to a fleet of about 450 buses, providing transportation to districts in Texas, New Mexico and Louisiana.
Keys to success
How did those companies grow?
“I used the same principles I used in the charter industry and adapted them to contract school operations. I think the most important thing is to maintain the culture within your company,” Polzien said. “A good, positive culture of teamwork gets you a long way toward success.
“This is an industry that draws a lot of really down-to-earth people. I have enjoyed the customers, the vendors and especially the employees. You get some really good people working at a bus company. This has been a very good life for me.”
Red Carpet Charters and Student Transportation Services have merged into Kincaid Coach Lines of Edwardsville, Kansas.
“My kids have no desire to get into the industry, and this opportunity presented itself,” Polzien said. “I’m 64 now and this was a way for me to slow down. But I haven’t slowed down yet.”
The industry, of course, looks a lot different than it did in 1984. As Polzien has enjoyed the challenges of facing the changes, he also has enjoyed his efforts to assist the industry. He has been a member of the board of directors of UMA since 2001 and has served as secretary and treasurer.
“Three things have changed how we do business: technology, the work force and the regulatory environment,” he said.
“On the technology front, the marketing plan used to be making sure you had the best yellow pages ad and wait for the phone to ring. Now it is everything from social media to search engine optimization. As millennials become a bigger part of our business, we are going to have to change the way we sell and let them book online rather than talk to somebody.”
As for workforce issues, he said, “We have a shortage of qualified people in all areas, not just drivers. Mechanics, office people, any position you look for it seems like there is a shortage.
“Some of that is caused in part by the regulatory environment. It is so difficult to get a driver into the seat and get them earning a paycheck. The difficulty in getting a CDL—the driver has to get qualified, do drug testing and background checks—those are barriers to getting drivers into the market. Those are things we have got to find ways to overcome.”
A need to grow
Marketing is another issue that Polzien hopes UMA can address.
“I am distressed that it seems we are a shrinking industry at a time when we are green, safe and economical. That is one of the things UMA needs to study so we can try to come up with answers,” he said.
“With highway congestion in all of our cities and along interstates going across country, we can solve a lot of the transportation problems if we are utilized in a greater fashion. Some of that is educating the market. Some of that is educating our politicians.”
While carriers are getting larger, passenger miles are declining, Polzien said. “We are seeing more mergers and we are not seeing as many small carriers. Part of that is the regulatory environment. It is harder to compete as a small company because of all the complexities you have to deal with. We need to take a good hard look at it to see what we can do to correct it and get our market expanding again.”
“The issues and problems facing the industry are on my agenda and part of my goals as UMA chair,” he said.
The evolution of UMA also is on his agenda.
“It seems that we are doing the same things we did 30 years ago. We expect our industry to change. Shouldn’t UMA change with the technology?” he asked.
What might those changes be?
“I don’t know,” Polzien said. “We have a great board with a lot of really sharp people on it. I’d like to get us behind the idea of looking at how UMA does business and figure out what is the best way for us to adapt to the times. How do we most effectively get the value of the organization to the membership and the industry? We will be looking at those things very diligently.”