Tom Giddens’ love of buses began at church.
When his pastor bought a brand new Carpenter school bus to take the Lutheran congregation’s Young Believers choir to performances and for Sunday school routes, he needed help.
Fortunately, that was around the summer that Giddens, an enterprising high school student, decided to take a class to learn how to drive a school bus. The 17-year-old learned there was a loophole with the state law that allowed him to get his commercial driver’s license before he turned 18.
“I found that I could drive the church bus because I didn’t get paid,” Giddens said. “I got my license, but I had to argue with DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) because they said I had to be 18 to drive commercially. I had to explain to them I wasn’t getting paid.”
Little did he know that first volunteer driving job as a teenager would lead to him starting Pacific Coachways, now located in Garden Grove, Calfiornia near Long Beach.
Eventually, that early volunteer work led to paid jobs driving buses. But Giddens knew he wanted to start his own business.
“I can remember dating him and we’d go out with Val (his first business partner) and they’d sit and draw about what kind of the side-of-the-bus logo should look like,” remembers his wife and Pacific Coachways co-owner, Connie,
Their opportunity came when they convinced a former employer to sell them permits to operate and leased them four buses.
“We expanded as time went on, one to two buses a year,” said Giddens, who has a fleet of nearly two dozen buses. When his partner decided to leave the business, his oldest child, Michael, was a college student was old enough to get more involved. Giddens’ general manager at that time, Richard Thomas who still works for Pacific Coachways, took Michael under his wing and trained him for the role.
The Pacific Coachways fleets stand out for the brand’s unique graphics – waves of pink and purple with the company’s moniker in blue.
The eye-catching graphic has drawn the attention of a few drivers over the years.
Driver Martin Martinez, Jr applied for a job with the company 18 years ago because he was impressed with the company’s design.
“I worked in the Long Beach area and I had just dropped people off at the university there when I saw a Pacific Coachways bus. The wave design caught my attention,” said Martinez, who applied for a job and got his passenger endorsement so he could join the company.
The company’s drivers’ room is filled with mementos from drivers and even passengers. A special one is a sign that was on a driver’s car as drivers passed by the Giddens’ home to show support for the owners during the early days of the pandemic when their business was essentially shut down by COVID-19 restrictions.
“We had about 25 cars and a bus go by,” remembers Giddens. “It was tearful and cheerful. It was pretty neat of them. All the staff took part.”
That was early on when the Giddens thought everyone would be back to work in a few weeks.
“Normally, we don’t have a very large turnover, but during the pandemic, we lost eight drivers,” said Connie Giddens, noting California’s strict restrictions kept the company’s buses parked longer than other businesses across the state. As a result, many longtime employees were forced to work in other fields.
Fighting unnecessary regulations
Operating a bus business in California can be more challenging than in other states. For example, in the Golden State, there’s the 40-foot rule.
“There’s a lot of places we can’t go unless you have a 40-foot bus,” said Giddens. “Technically you aren’t allowed a 45-foot bus on anything except the interstate. You can’t go through Big Sur and along Highway 1 with a 45-foot bus. That’s why we have a mixed fleet of different size buses.”
The length restriction is based on concerns that the longer buses can’t make turns as easily as shorter buses, he says.
Arbitrary regulations are one reason why Giddens is passionate about advocacy. He’s the former president of the California Bus Association and a current member of the United Motorcoach Association.
Beyond his leadership, Giddens is known for his loyalty and generosity in the industry. A decade ago, he donated his kidney to fellow bus operator Mike Waters. The two met at CBA and became fast friends.
“I feel like the industry is my family and we all look out for each other, operators and vendors alike,” Giddens said.