OFFICIAL BUSRide Field Test:
Prevost helps Elite Coach stay ahead of the curve
By David Hubbard
Business by the book
never gets old
The story of Elite Coach, Ephrata, PA, and its success has to do with its owners’ reliance on sound business basics that eased their path into the motorcoach industry, and their remarkable undertaking to continually maintain and operate every new coach they purchased.
In 1991, the three partners running Ritter Tour and Travel elected to buy their own coaches. Subsequently, they renamed their operation to reflect the upgrade. At the same time, Paul Kurtz, a successful entrepreneur in the area, was busy with his own mix of companies that ranged from farm and home supply to grain hauling. By 1997, Kurtz had sold all his companies. However, not wanting to retire altogether, Kurtz began driving charters for Elite Coach.
The federal deregulation of motorcoach transportation had just been enacted, bringing great changes to every facet of the industry. True to his entrepreneurial spirit, Kurtz bought out one of the Elite Coach owners within six months of starting his new job. A short time later, he bought out the second owner. Kurtz was back in business for himself.
Paul’s son Brian was fresh out of college and had moved to Texas to help a friend set up a small business. Kurtz’s son-in-law David Dickson was working in hotel maintenance and management, and recalls the day he asked his father-in-law for advice on an inviting job offer he received to manage a retirement center.
“Paul threw me the biggest curve ball I have ever had in my life,” Dickson says. “Without mincing words, he said, ‘Look, I am thinking about buying this motorcoach company, so rather than take that job, why don’t you just come over and work for me at Elite Coach?’ That’s how it all started.”
A short time later, Brian received his summons.
“My dad called saying, ‘Brian, I just bought a bus company, you should come work here for a while,’” he says. “So I thought to myself, well, it isn’t going particularly well here so we’ll just see where this goes.”
Brian and Dickson agree that as new partners trudging into unfamiliar territory, each came to the table with knowledge and experience in business and finance. However, it’s fair to say they essentially knew nothing about buses.
The new owners inherited the original owner’s six 40-foot coaches ranging in model years from 1983 to 1996.
“Paul made it my job to oversee the fleet and get the coaches up and running,” Dickson says. “They were in really bad shape when we started, which I found quite intimidating. But my background in A/C and electrical components turned out to be a big plus. The system basics and components are about the same, whether for a vehicle or a building, so that was a good start.”
Dickson says in the beginning as the only man in the shop, his trial by fire required long hours. He recalls one “26-hour” day after a few weeks on the job, all to get a coach ready for an upcoming tour.
“Fortunately for me, one of the mechanics who worked for the former owners took me under his wing,” he says. “He became my mentor, and my first six weeks were a real crash course.”
Shortly after Paul Kurtz arranged to sell the charter tour component to another travel company, Brian actually took a job handling its marketing for the next year-and-a-half. He returned to Elite and worked dispatch before moving into finance and sales.
“I delved into the books and began tracking each phase of the operation for what was and what was not working,” he says. “Unfortunately, I found that everything was not as it had seemed. We needed some basic metrics and benchmarks to find our way in areas areas such as vehicle utilization, mileage and maintenance.”
He says, by relying on solid fundamentals, Elite Coach was soon turning a profit in a small way. At this time, the motorcoach business was experiencing a sea change that was redirecting operator focus from fleet size to efficient, measurable financial practices.
“From our perspective, this did not affect what we had been doing,” Kurtz says. “We were new to this industry, but we came in already knowing how to run a business by the books. From that standpoint, we really didn’t have to relearn anything.”
Work with what you have
Looking to enhance the company image, Paul Kurtz entered into a discussion with Prevost. Finding the Canadian bus-builder friendly and willing to answer all his questions, he was satisfied. Elite Coach took delivery on its first new coach in 1997, a 45-foot demo the company test drove for a week.
“Except for one unit that we sold along the way, we are still running every Prevost coach we have ever owned,” Kurtz says. “Our two 1998 coaches have now reached 1.2 million miles.”
This is where Kurtz and Dickson believe Elite Coach separates itself from the competition. They actually preceded the wave of attention that the refurbishment and reconditioning of older coaches drew from the industry about five years ago — right on the heels of the 2008 recession.
“We feel we were clearly on the leading edge of the concept of refinishing and upgrading older coaches,” Dickson says. “We were already working with Prevost to fully refurbish a number of our oldest vehicles.”
With the price of new motorcoaches on the increase, especially with EGR and the fuel emission mandates, the owners agreed that refurbishment was the most sensible direction.
“Given the state of the industry, the traditional business model of rotating new buses every five to seven years no longer works for us,” Kurtz says. “We started viewing it like 15 years or more, with our only alternative being to aggressively upgrade and maintain our existing fleet and grow cautiously.”
Dickson says that by 2008, the maintenance facility had grown into a fully-equipped shop and parts department. Today six full-time technicians handle much of the refurbishment work.
“We started with flooring, steps and grab rails in the entry stairwell,” he says. “This is the first area customers see as they board our coaches, and we moved through the coaches from there, replacing and refitting. Because we travel so much in the Northeast, corrosion is by far our biggest challenge. As long as we can minimize corrosion on the undersides, we are able to realize success with upgrading and keeping to our buses.”
Prevost on board
As a major motorcoach OEM in North America whose primary objective is new coach sales, Prevost did not hesitate to take a proactive role in Elite Coach’s new initiative, taking in six of the oldest Elite coaches in 2011 to outfit with front and end caps and new bumpers to give them greater curb appeal.
“Prevost stands by its customers,” says Prevost Director of Marketing Michael Power. “Our mindset is to do everything we need to do to be their best business partner.”
“The investments operators make in buying our products are perhaps the largest capital outlay they will face,” he adds. “To realize the best return on their investment, they have to be able to capitalize off their vehicles — not only for their first three to five years, but long term as well.”
For that reason, Power says Prevost has dedicated itself to creating solutions that are in sync with each customer’s unique mode of operation.
“Prevost always tries to be responsive to our customers’ needs,” Powers says. ”As we demonstrated with Elite Coach, we are experienced in refurbishing and refinishing, and we can offer an array of upgrades — such as rear caps, front caps and interior fixtures, that bring older coaches remarkably close to newer models, resulting in a more unified looking fleet.”
Kurtz says Prevost has stood by Elite Coach steadfastly for nearly 20 years.
“They understand our business plan right down to the last detail,” he says. “They have never had a single reservation about accommodating our unique business model. Without this assistance and guidance from Prevost, we would not be able to maintain our fleet at the level we do.”
With Prevost’s carefully customized upgrades, Elite Coach says its customers appear not to notice any differences between any of the coaches in the fleet.
“If they do, we have not heard any comments to that effect,” Dickson says. “Our improvements and consistent paint and graphics give the fleet a cohesive, unified and updated appearance.”
Elite Coach does not shy away from the expense involved, noting that it planned on spending $40,000 to $60,000 on each coach. The company invested more than $300,000 in renovations and upgrades for the first six coaches.
Elite Coach has effectively carved out its niche as a charter coach operation that works primarily with tour operators and student travel groups. In addition, the company continues to run a limited number of traditional tours that have been longtime favorite getaways for customers in the Lancaster area.
Elite’s predominantly Prevost fleet now stands at 33. As a testament to its continuing successful partnership with Prevost, Elite Coach has now grown to the point where purchasing new coaches has finally become an option.
In fact, the company will be taking delivery of two 2016 Prevost H3-45s early this year.