The Art of Collaboration

How helping others can grow your business

Marcia Milton believes in the power of collaboration. She credits her strategy of partnering with companies to go after projects and contracts with boosting her business, First Priority Trailways, which will mark its 20th anniversary this summer.

“That philosophy has made a world of difference,” Milton said. “I started out with one coach, so to get a stream of work I had to partner with people. It’s the best way to get your piece of the pie.”

The quickest way to find industry partners is to join organizations, says Milton, who practices what she preaches. Milton is a member of five industry organizations that put her in contact with a cross-section of people—the United Motorcoach Association, American Bus Association, National Association of Motorcoach Operators, Maryland Motorcoach Association and the Virginia Motorcoach Association. She holds leadership roles on the UMA, NAMO and Trailways boards. She estimates she spends 10 percent of her work hours on her association duties but says the investment pays off.

“I have people who call me from all over, asking ‘Do you know anybody in New Jersey?’ ‘Do you know anybody in Pennsylvania?’ ‘Do you know anybody in North Carolina?’ If you are a member of these organizations, then you, too, would know somebody,” Milton tells them.

While some overlook NAMO, she likes the intimacy of the smaller national organization that has over 130 members. Most are smaller operators. The annual conference, held in August, feels like a family reunion.

“We are there for one another in good and bad times. We share successes. We share disappointments. We’re more or less like a family and don’t worry about competition,” Milton said.


Keeping costs down

Jackie Grice

That’s the approach Milton and Jackie Grice, co-owner of Virginia-based Agape Travel and Tours, have taken. They like to share the story of how they collaborated on a military contract that involved moving troops from Washington, D.C., to Iowa. They had three days to put together the operation. Not only did they land the project, but they kept costs down by sharing expenses such as a driver’s car and hotel rooms.

“Neither one of us could have done it independently, but together we could,” said Milton, who has a fleet of 13 motorcoaches, a mix of MCI and Van Hool vehicles. “It’s about helping each other out if there’s an available bus and it’s sitting and someone else has a job that’s going to benefit you even if the fee is lower than what you usually charge.”

Grice credits the collaboration strategy for helping her land jobs that might have gone to bigger companies.

“If there is a project that comes up where I need more buses than what I have in my inventory, I’ll still bid on it because I know that I can depend on Marcia as a good subcontractor,” said Grice. “It’s the same thing on the other end of it. Even if her prices are a little lower than what I would have bid, or vice versa, we really try to work with each other and not let money ever be a factor.”

Anne Brown, co-owner of Regal Coach in Chicago, has had a personal and business friendship with Milton. She describes their businesses as “sister companies.” When their buses roll into each other’s area, they are ready to provide an extra driver, a guide or help with hotel bookings.

The three women say their Christian faith guides their business model, particularly the Golden Rule: treat others the same way you would like to be treated.


Helping with emergencies

Anne (L) & Marcia (R) at the National Museum of African American History & Culture Washington, DC August 2017 (Mary Presley)

When First Priority comes to town and needs assistance, Willie, Brown’s husband, steps up to fill in. When Milton needed a tour guide at the last minute for a group or a driver ran out of hours, he did the duties. All free of charge. Brown can expect the same support when her motorcoaches roll into Washington, D.C., whether she needs her buses cleaned, a relief driver or a tour guide.

“In the end, it’s all works out. It’s just that you have to be mindful that you could be out there in a situation and if you stay in this business, it’s going to happen,” Brown said. “You wouldn’t want the people who can come to your rescue to take advantage because of your current situation. We all need to help each other when the need is there.”

While it isn’t always possible to give free service to everyone, Brown says she gives a membership rate when helping out someone in her circle (National Association of Motorcoach Operators). She remembers getting many calls after hours and Willie getting out of bed many times to go to the rescue. This is how you survive in this business, she says.

Milton remembers getting a call from a bus company whose passengers were stuck at a nearby church and needed to be transported to a spot about a mile away. She had one of her drivers pick up the passengers and drop them off. The ride took about 20 minutes. She didn’t charge a dime.

She’s had another company do a similar favor for her but charged her.

“The people fed him, and he still sent a bill for $500 and said to me, ‘That was your emergency, not mine, so it costs.’ I mean there are people like that,” said Milton. “I just don’t deal with them. I’m not going to be like that. It’s a business, but you’ve got to have the human part of it, too.”

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