SAN ANTONIO – When Gladys Gillis took over as chair of the United Motorcoach Association board of directors last month, most of the talk focused on the fact that she was the first woman to rise to that position.
But Gillis just shrugs at such talk.
After all, she says, she always knew it eventually would happen.
“At my first Expo, after five years in the industry, I said I would be the chair someday,” Gillis said during an interview at UMA Motorcoach Expo 2018 in San Antonio.
She said that over the years, there have been plenty of female UMA members who would have made excellent chairs, including Autumn Diepert Brown, Sandy Allen and June Bratcher, a pioneering motorcoach operator who was named winner of this year’s BUSRide Industry Achievement Award.
“She could have run circles around this place,” Gillis said of Bratcher.
So why did it take this long for a woman to become UMA chair?
“I do not know,” Gillis said. “I’ve never gone around asking that question.”
She stressed, however, that even though UMA is “certainly male dominated, I’ve never seen it as a good-old-boy network. Everyone who gives time to this board really cares about the organization. It’s hard to give up all that time.”
Gillis said that one reason UMA has more male operator members could be that it used to be difficult for women to get loans to purchase motorcoaches and launch businesses.
“I had to put my house up in order to have buses,” said Gillis, who had been working at Boeing for 13 years as a process engineer. “I took $250,000 out of my 401(k).”
That was in 1998, when she and her business partner, Becky Pritchett, launched a company that would become Seattle-based Starline Transportation, which focused on contract and paratransit services.
Five years later, they rebranded the company as Starline Luxury Coaches with higher-quality vehicles and a focus on customer service.
Gillis eventually bought out her partner and expanded the company over the years to include five locations, 110 vehicles and 160 employees offering charter, special event, shuttle, express and pop-up services.
Gillis joined the UMA board 15 years ago and has served on the executive committee for six years, the last two as vice chair.
She said that over the past six years, the executive committee, including outgoing chair Dale Krapf, “started tearing into UMA’s finances and developing measurable executive performance metrics.” Then they had to focus on finding a new president and CEO to replace Victor Parra, who stepped down last year after nearly 18 years leading UMA.
“You wouldn’t believe all the time that took,” Gillis said. “But now I am taking over as chair of an association that is stable and has its finances in shape, and that has a new president and CEO. I feel like I am going on vacation.
“Not that I won’t get anything done,” she added.
Gillis said one of her top priorities as chair is to push UMA’s education programs out to the state and regional associations. She said that because motorcoach company staffers generally don’t attend such major events as Expo, they are unable to benefit from the education sessions offered at those events.
“It is mainly company leaders who attend Expo and go to the education sessions,” Gillis said. “I think we need to offer those sessions at state and regional events so staffers can also take advantage of them. They would have a real meaningful impact on those individuals.”
She said that company leaders who attend such education sessions might go back with some great ideas, but it is difficult for staff members to implement those ideas, resulting in “implementation paralysis.”
“We need to bring these member services closer to the staffers who would benefit the most from them,” she said.
Gillis said she also would like to focus on identifying driver and mechanic jobs as career paths in an effort to attract more quality people to those critical professions.
She said a third objective would be to explore ways of working together with the American Bus Association.
“I’d like to see the UMA and ABA legislative agendas come together and have the associations speak with a unified voice,” she said.
There has long been animosity between the two motorcoach associations, which discussed merging a while back but failed to reach an agreement.
Small operators that make up the bulk of UMA’s membership tend to view ABA as supporting the agendas of such major companies as Greyhound Lines. That has often resulted in UMA and ABA having opposing views on proposed industry regulations.
Gillis said the negativity and competition between the two associations isn’t good for the motorcoach industry. She said it is likely that they have a lot in common and that it is worth exploring whether they can work together on some legislative and regulatory issues.
“We might be able to drain the swamp around all of the negativity,” she said, adding that she is not advocating merging UMA and ABA.
UMA President and CEO Stacy Tetschner said it was exciting to see the association welcome its first female chairperson into leadership, “especially one with such great insights into our industry and what it takes to run a successful motorcoach operation.”
“I am looking forward to working with her as we continue to make UMA more relevant and essential to our members and those operators who are not yet our members,” Tetschner said.
Although Gillis acknowledges that her being the first female UMA board chair has some historic significance and is being highlighted by some, she said she couldn’t believe that it is 2018 and there is still a woman taking over any position for the first time.
“It’s amazing to me that we have a first woman doing anything in this day and age,” she said.