by Hal Mattern
During the first few years after introducing its i6 motorcoaches in the U.S. market, Spanish manufacturer Irizar relied on a third-party company to handle sales and support.
No more. About 18 months ago, Irizar cut out the middleman—INA Bus Sales—and launched Las Vegas-based Irizar USA to handle all of its marketing, sales and support functions. Since then, the company has been developing dealerships and building its sales and maintenance staffs around the country.
“We had to focus on dealerships and licensing and setting up our team of sales representatives, service managers and techs, and also on dealing directly with our customers,” said Axier Etxezarreta, president of Irizar USA.
Irizar entered the U.S. market in 2016, introducing two versions of its 45-foot i6 buses at the United Motorcoach Association’s Motorcoach EXPO. At the time, the company said its goal was to capture 10 to 15 percent of the market for 45-foot coaches within about five years.
Etxezarreta said he still believes the company will reach that goal within the next few years. He said just over 60 i6 motorcoaches have been sold in the U.S.
Although Irizar is fairly new to the U.S. market, it has been operating around the world for nearly 130 years. The company has 3,500 employees and manufacturing facilities in five countries—Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Morocco and South Africa.
Headquartered in Ormaiztegi, in Spain’s Basque region, the Irizar Group sells its coaches in 90 countries, with its largest markets being Spain and Mexico.
When it decided to enter the U.S. market, Irizar enlisted the help of INA Bus Sales, led by industry veteran Michael Haggerty, to market, sell and support its motorcoaches. Haggerty also owned CH Bus Sales, which since 2010 had served as the North American distributor for Turkish motorcoach manufacturer Temsa.
The Temsa-CH Bus agreement has since gone sour, and the former partners have been engaged in a court battle for more than a year.
The Irizar-INA split was much more amicable, although it took months to negotiate, said Chad Dixon, a former INA executive who now serves as vice president of Irizar USA.
Then it took several more months to obtain the necessary licensing and insurance to sell the buses, as well as finding office space and hiring staff. “Even getting a sign on a building can be a task,” Dixon said.
But the company is making progress. Since launching Irizar USA in July 2018, the company has established a sales presence in the West, Northeast and in Florida. It has hired a sales manager for the Northeast region and an account executive for its Orlando, Florida, operation.
Bailey Coach of Pennsylvania, which operates Irizar coaches, has signed on as an authorized service center, Dixon said.
Irizar also is negotiating with companies in the Chicago area and Texas to become authorized service centers.
Entering 2020, the company plans to continue focusing on developing a system of service centers, regional distributors and sales managers as it solidifies its footprint in the U.S. “We are clearly committed to the U.S. market,” Etxezarreta said.
Dixon said the purpose of launching its own operation in the U.S. was to establish a seamless transition from the production line to customers “without third-party involvement or issues out of our control.
“It gives us a closer connection to the customer. We are an arm of the (parent) company and an extension of the factories and the corporate office,” Dixon said. “We operate with the vision and the values of Irizar. It has been challenging, but we have met it with professionalism and pride in our team, our service and our product.”
The Irizar Group has been manufacturing electric transit buses for the past few years for use in European cities, and Etxezarreta said it is possible the company will someday introduce them in the U.S. But it won’t be anytime soon.
“That’s where the market is heading as the battery technology advances,” he said. “But payload and range are fighting against each other.”
Etxezarreta said working to introduce electric coaches now would take away from the company’s target, “which is focusing on the USA and our market niche, at least in the short term.”
For the foreseeable future, Irizar plans to stick with the i6 as its only motorcoach sold in the U.S. It will exhibit a version at the 2020 UMA Motorcoach EXPO that includes a collision mitigation system.
Irizar also has a super cargo model that is taller and features 620 cubic feet of storage. Dixon said the coaches are popular in the Northeast and in North Carolina, where the company is getting “great feedback on the storage space.”
It also features seats that are comfortable for big and tall people. “Sports teams love it,” Dixon said. “And it has great curb appeal.”
In the four years it has been operating in the U.S., Irizar has managed to attract several repeat customers for its motorcoaches. “That speaks volumes about our customer service and support and our emphasis on exceeding expectations,” Dixon said. “We stress responsiveness and to always be thinking about our customers, not just when they have a problem.
“It’s a true partnership, which is appealing, especially to small operators.”