Irizar North America; one year in
INA Bus Sales’ partnership with the Spanish bus builder proves itself in recognition, respect and sales.
By David Hubbard
One year has passed since the Irizar Group entered the North American coach market, marking a significant milestone in the history of this eminent 128-year old Spanish coach builder — bringing its i6 models tailored expressly for operators in the U.S. and Canada.
Founded in 1889 in Ormaiztegi, Gipuzkoa, Spain, the global reach of Irizar now extends across six continents with manufacturing sites in Spain, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.
“Our focus this year in the United States has been to deliver the first units on time and create a dependable aftersales network to serve our new customers,” says Irizar USA Director Axier Etxezarreta. “Already, we are seeing new customers repeat their purchases, which tells us we have been successful in our goal, and are on the right track.”
As the exclusive U.S. distributor of Irizar coaches and aftermarket support, INA Bus Sales, Las Vegas, NV, says its focus this past year has been to nurture and warm the market to the new brand of coaches.
“This year we continued to hone the long-term strategy we first envisioned for our partnership with the Irizar Group,” says INA Bus Sales Chief Operations Officer Chad Dixon. “We are delighted to realize our early work is proving worthwhile, and I am confident our partnership will reflect the success Irizar has experienced in other countries.”
Irizar, together with INA Bus Sales, devoted four years to the research and development, engineering and design of the i6. Built on an integral monocoque frame, the coach stands 12.23 feet tall. The Super-Cargo is slightly taller at 12.89 feet, with its considerably larger luggage bay offering approximately 620 cubic feet of storage capacity. Irizar also widened both models to 102 inches from the European standard 96 inches.
With their European curb appeal and clean aerodynamic design, Irizar says both versions of the i6 incorporate more systems and components as standard equipment than other available brands, which present these Spanish coaches in a more familiar light for U.S. coach companies.
They include a lane departure warning system, acceleration skid control, side shades, Alcoa aluminum wheels and Amaya Torino seats with foot rests, as well as a Cummins ISX engine, Allison B500 transmission and ZF axles; systems and components familiar to North American operators.
Two bus and coach operators based in the San Francisco Bay area, Omar Orozco, founder and president of Professional Charter Services, San Francisco, CA, and Fernando Medina, founder and president of Medina Tours and Charters, San Jose, CA, led the charge in 2016 to put Irizar i6s on the road.
Orozco and Medina share similar accounts of their startups in the bus industry and their eventual discovery of Irizar coaches. The two were driving buses for other companies when each was struck with the idea to step out on his own.
The economic recession of 2008 did little to deter Orozco. After working construction and driving coaches since his arrival in the U.S. from Nicaragua, he felt it was his time, even though the downturn made banking and financing extremely difficult.
“I pulled out my retirement money to start my business from scratch — from nothing,” he says. “Though my Small Business Association (SBA) program did not happen as planned, the economy has bounced back gradually, and I have taken every action to remain in business.”
Though he would have preferred motorcoaches, Orozco launched Professional Charter Services with two small cutaway buses and focused on school bus transportation.
“I focused on private high schools that had budgets for student transportation other than yellow school buses,” he says. “That niche paid off for a while and I was able to purchase some older MCI motorcoaches.”
Professional Charter Services currently operates a mixed fleet of eight motorcoaches, seven cutaway buses, two Sprinter vans and two Cadillac Escalades.
“Last year, we had the good fortune to be able to provide service for the Super Bowl,” Orozco says. “By then I was at the point where I could move into new equipment.”
Similarly, Medina had driven coaches for many years for more than a few companies when the day came that he and a coworker felt ready to buy a bus and strike out on their own.
“Seven years ago, the last company I worked for went out of business,” he says. “Rather than look for another job with another company, we felt the time was right to give it try. We were able to purchase a 1998 model coach and started doing casino runs.”
He says business grew steadily to include charters and corporate shuttles in the San Jose area, allowing him to purchase more coaches and watch his small startup evolve the family business.
“This has very much become a family operation,” Medina says. “My daughters run the office, my brother oversees the maintenance department and my son and I drive.”
Today, Medina Tours and Charters operates a mixed fleet of 19 vans, buses and coaches for charter and contract work.
Both Orozco and Medina say that when it came time to buy new motorcoaches for the first time, each had beaten a well-worn path to the major motorcoach OEMs without much success.
“Trying to buy brand new equipment for the first time, I felt I was not receiving the level of support I was due,” Medina says. “For whatever reason, I found the general lack of response to my requests very disappointing.”
Orozco says, for the most part, he felt the major coach brands were simply unwilling to take the risk.
Medina purchased his first new coach in 2012. He followed in 2016 with his two new Irizar i6s and has since added three more.
“After a friend introduced me to Irizar shortly after their arrival in North America, I met with INA Bus Sales in Las Vegas and I liked what I saw,” Medina says. “Irizar coaches speak for themselves. What impresses me the most is just how hard the Irizar Group and INA Bus Sales have worked to establish this brand in the U.S., and the level of aftermarket support I have received. I never have to call more than once for someone to help.”
To that point, Medina recalls one recent maintenance call that seems to say it all.
“I was having a problem with one of the coaches during a stay over in San Francisco,” he says. “When INA Bus Sales got my call, they didn’t hesitate. They flew two technicians in overnight and made the necessary repair while I was asleep. I woke to find the issue resolved and the coach operating perfectly.”
Orozco connected with Irizar through Miguel Oliva, the INA Bus Sales vice president, Sales and Service, Western Region. Oliva filled him in on the company’s plan for North America, which led him to acquiring his first three Irizar coaches; and three more i6s as of this year. He recalls his first impression of Irizar as being rather low key.
“Before meeting Miguel, I did not know much about Irizar,” he says. “My attitude seemed to be buses are buses. But, what I recognized immediately was all that INA Bus Sales was doing to establish these coaches as a very reputable brand in North America. So, I gave them a try and I can say for certain that I am very happy with the tremendous support I get from them. Everyone is looking at our buses. New customers are requesting our Irizars because they like something different.”
Marty Barrett, INA Bus Sales executive vice president, National Sales, says the strength of the Irizar brand in the San Francisco market was not expected.
“That these long-time professionals would respond so positively to our product came somewhat as a surprise,” he says. “Nonetheless, it is extremely gratifying to be so well received.”
One year in, Barrett calls this a very exciting time for his company after showing the Irizar i6 at the major trade shows and to operators around the country. He says the goal now is to continue the success and momentum Irizar has enjoyed to this point.
Looking ahead for Irizar North America in 2017 and beyond, Etxezarreta says the company is comfortable to work “medium-long” term.
“We are used to working more in medium-to-long terms,” he says. “So, in the near future, we will aim for 10 percent market share. This probably will not come during 2017, but we intend to grow in that direction.”
Meanwhile, Barrett and the entire INA Bus Sales team is thrilled with the feedback from coach operators who have driven the Irizar i6 and seen their parts availability and aftersales support.
“We are extremely grateful to have sold as many units as we have, and gain such a high degree of exposure in one year,” he says. “We couldn’t be happier for such tremendous market recognition in such a short time.”