Traditional business values support new processes
The Cupp family and friends perpetuate Blue Lakes Charter and Tours
By David Hubbard
In the early 1960s Stan Cupp was already involved in the travel business and operating a few school buses when he jumped at the opportunity to buy up a half-dozen fledgling bus companies from the upper peninsula of Michigan to Toledo, OH. He ran his new operation as Delta Bus Lines from his base in Saginaw. In 1980 Cupp accepted an invitation from the Trailways team to become an affiliate and renamed the business Michigan Trailways.
Stan’s sons, David and Randy, who spent much of their time as youngsters around the business washing and cleaning buses continued to work through the ranks of Michigan Trailways for at least 15 years until their father elected to sell the operation in 1988.
With the sudden collapse of that venture after only 10 months into the deal, the new owners relieved the Cupp boys of their duties. David and Randy took it as the chance to create their own motorcoach company, which they launched in 1989 as Blue Lake Charter and Tours. The only hitch in the process was the fact their father was under a strict non-compete clause that prevented his involvement with his sons.
According to co-owner and vice president Randy Cupp, only the generous assistance of a longtime family friend could make this opportunity possible. Clancy Cornell, the eventual founder of ABC Companies, had grown up with Stan and had begun selling used coaches he purchased from Greyhound.
“We simply could not have managed this without Clancy’s agreeing to help us at the critical time,” says Cupp. “He willingly extended credit to us that allowed us to purchase and operate our first three MCI MC8s.
The early transactions between these two pioneering families marked the beginning of one the more venerable partnerships in the North American motorcoach industry.
“Growing up together, Stan and I shared many of the same family business goals,” says Cornell. “We both grew our businesses from the ground up and shared our passion for the bus industry with our sons. I can say with all certainty that Stan would be more than proud of his sons today.”
As both businesses have grown so have family relations between the Cupp and Cornell sons. Blue Lakes President David Cupp says their camaraderie over the years in business has grown, and outside interests include countless get-togethers and one memorable group excursion to Sturgis, SD on Harley Davidsons.
Cupp says his father may have even been the first operator in the U.S. to purchase a Van Hool when the company brought a demo model to North America to test the market prior to Cornell’s involvement with the Belgian bus builder.
While Blue Lakes ran early 815 Model GMCs equipped with Mann engines coupled to manual transmissions, the Cupps continued to purchase Van Hool coaches after Cornell formed ABC Companies and became the North American distributor.
This year, Blue Lakes will take delivery of four 2012 C2045s to bring the Van Hool count to 20 in the fleet of 55, which includes a number of late model MCIs that have been converted to entertainer and lounge coaches for special events.
Blues Lakes is reaching into its third generation of Cupp family management with David’s son and daughter, Ryan and Betsy respectfully, working in sales and marketing and casino reservations, while Randy’s sons Nathan and Jason are involved in charter sales and maintenance and driver orientation. Ryan Cupp also is a founding member of the UMA Young Guns operator group and secretary of the newly formed Midwest Bus Association.
Based in Clio, MI, the $8 million company employs 150 and also operates facilities in Pontiac, MI and Perrysburg, OH, offering a diverse range of services from corporate charters, casino and amusement park runs to extended excursions, such as National Park backpacking trips and the 45-day coach trek Alaska’s Denali National Park for the Michigan Jewish Community Center.
“We give a lot of focus to school and university sports teams and youth organizations,” says David Cupp. “As we are seeing a lot of business from the senior communities waning, we really have to look for ways to attract new markets.”
He says Blue Lakes is the first motorcoach company in his area to initiate an online reservation-payment system for scheduled services that sell trips by the seat.
“The Internet has become such a reality in our business, we had to set up this new system in-house on our website and hire a IT professional to manage it,” says Cupp. “We dropped our Yellow Pages advertising by at least two-thirds.
As the business has passed to each generation and evolved over 40-plus years, Cupp says his family owes much of the stability in operations to a number of drivers and dispatchers who began with the company as Delta and Michigan Trailways.
Cupp says one of the most beneficial efforts to grow and improve has been his involvement over the past three years in the Spader 20 Groups.
“The opportunity to network so closely in a group that ranges from some of the largest bus companies to some of the smallest has really helped,” he says. “We have incorporated a number of suggestions that have literally turned us around in how we do business and how we communicate with our employees and get them more involved in our decision making processes.”
Cupp cites one particularly valuable piece of advice from the group was to make the switch to the more robust motorcoach management software. Another was to be more up front on how Blue Lakes passes fluctuating fuel costs onto its customers.
“This is a big problem for so many operators who must quote prices six to 12 months in advance,” he says. “We used to put a disclaimer in small print on the back of the contract that explained the trip was subject to a fuel surcharge. We decided we couldn’t afford the flack we were getting from our customers. Now we print it right on the front in big letters: The cost of this trip is based on today’s fuel costs.
“Internally we are realizing greater value and efficiency by holding more meetings with more of our employees in every area of the operation. We are listening more closely and implementing their ideas. These are our people on the front line doing the work our customers see and judge us by. Their input is crucial to how we operate in this stage of the company.” BR