Rick Palmer feels fortunate that he works in an industry he loves.
“I love the bus market,” said Palmer, National Accounts Manager for Stertil-Koni USA. “It’s kind of one of those markets. You get in and you just don’t know how to get out of it.”
Palmer says one of the highlights of his career will happen at the 2024 UMA Motorcoach EXPO when the first Rising Star award is presented at the UMA Maintenance Competition. The award is underwritten by Stertil-Koni USA, the leading manufacturer of heavy-duty vehicle lifting systems.
This year’s competition will be Tuesday, Feb. 6, starting at 10 a.m., with the winners announced at the UMA Awards Gala that evening. ABC Companies is the longtime sponsor of the Maintenance Competition and a longtime customer of Stertil-Koni.
Bringing competition to EXPO floor
Stertil-Koni USA provides its lifts so a coach can be raised for the under-the-bus inspection portion of the competition. That allows the event to be held on the EXPO showroom floor.
Previously, the competition was held at a bus garage in the community where EXPO was held, said Kevin Whitworth, organizer of the competition and the Maintenance Interchange.
“We took the mechanics and loaded them up early in the morning and we went to somebody’s shop that I had visited a month before, ” Whitworth said. “Now that the competition has moved to the EXPO floor, people can watch it.”
Whitworth said Palmer and Stertil-Koni have done much to support the event. “They don’t charge us to rent the lifts,” he said. “That adds up to thousands of dollars in support.”
Bus career started while in Army
Palmer’s 40-plus years in the bus and motorcoach industry began when he was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed in West Germany.
While there, the military GI Bill paid for him to earn his pilot’s license. While he was serving as a reserve officer, a German company with a fleet of 600 buses hired him full time as a pilot.
“Our headquarters was Stuttgart, but we had operations in Paris, London, Rome and Salzburg. I flew the bosses between all the different locations,” Palmer said.
When the owner bought a U.S. bus company, then called Roberts Holiday Lines/American Pacific Stage Lines, in Anaheim, California, he asked Palmer to be part of the leadership team. He chose Palmer because he could speak, write and read German and could be a bridge between him and the U.S. operation.
“He asked me if I would give up my flying career, come back to the United States and be the eyes and ears in discussions of the company,” Palmer said.
That was in the late 1980s. The new ownership relocated operations to Phoenix and rebranded it as Western Trails Bus Lines. Palmer was made the CEO of the business, which had a 40-bus fleet.
“That’s where I came into the bus industry in the United States, and I met a lot of people when we purchased and took delivery of buses in Pembina and Brownsville,” said Palmer.
Broadening his experience
When that company was sold, he became involved in importing from another bus manufacturer, LAG, a Belgian firm that wanted to sell buses in the U.S. market.
“At the time, MCI was dominant in the motorcoach market and the prime Greyhound motorcoach provider,” Palmer said. “Prevost was the premier manufacturer of shells for the motorhome/entertainer marketplace, but they really weren’t as much of a presence in the United States over the road coach industry like they are today..
“The European buses had televisions \and different seating and options we had not begun to offer in the United States, so we actually got some resonance. People took a risk and bought from LAGUSA, a Belgian bus.”
While the effort brought some new ideas into the marketplace, Palmer said, it ultimately did not succeed.
He moved on to Neoplan USA and became Vice President of Transit/Motorcoach, based in Lamar, Colorado, and Honeybrook, Pennsylvania.
At this point in his career, he became involved in a relatively new concept for motorcoach maintenance in the U.S. – heavy-duty mobile lifting solutions.
“At that time, technicians looked at the mobile lift and they went, ‘No way, no way,’ Palmer said. “Our experience has shown that mechanics, after they use it for the first time, become the biggest supporters.”
Companies and operators found that the mobile lifting systems offered flexibility and better reliability.
“But the first reaction was concern that they were safe,” he said. “As soon as they used the product, it became a product that they couldn’t live without. Now, they’re training how to use them in many of the mechanic schools.”
In 2013, he joined Stertil-Koni, leaving a competitor where he had worked for 23 years, to oversee national accounts.
“The bus industry is certainly one of our biggest industries. Our product is used exclusively by many of the manufacturing and maintenance servicing facilities, giving Stertil-Koni a dominant share of the North American market,” Palmer said. “We are proud suppliers for ABC/VanHool, NFI/MCI, Prevost/Volvo, Daimler, Temsa, Irizar and numerous other manufacturers.”
Stertil-Koni, a Buy America company, also supplies its heavy duty vehicle lifts, including bus lifts and truck lifts, to municipalities, state agencies, school bus fleets, major corporations and the U.S. Military.
Stertil-Koni USA is headquartered in Stevensville, Maryland, with production facilities in Europe, and Streator, Illinois.