ABC Companies – Quality service built on a strong heritage

As highway coaches and transit buses continue to evolve with new technologies, enhancements and features, operators are faced with even greater challenges – specifically when it comes to the repair and maintenance of their equipment. Forming relationships with companies who possess a strong heritage, experience, and understanding of our industry can help you find solutions for all your service, parts, or equipment needs. One such company that has grown on the foundation of building strong relationships, and keeping things simple and honest, is ABC Companies. With the demands of the industry at the forefront, ABC Companies has built a business with strategic locations for sales, parts and service across North America, making it possible for operators to rely on this partnership wherever they are.

When 27-year-old Clarence “Clancy” Cornell bought Faribault Bus Service from his brother Eddie in 1957, he couldn’t have imagined where it would take him, his family and the bus industry. Cornell already had been in the bus business for several years, and had a vision for the bus service that included expanding into charters and tours. In addition to the “fleet,” the purchase included the garage and the house next door, and the family likes to say that his four children (Deb, Ron, Roxie and Dane) literally grew up in the garage.

Clancy soon got his first real taste of selling buses as he unloaded aged Marmon-Herringtons and Aerocoaches in favor of newer, diesel-powered coaches. While operating the bus service he began dabbling in buying and selling buses, and discovered he had a knack for it. In time he and his sons, Ron and Dane, were devoting all their energy to buying and selling coaches – so in 1974 they closed Faribault Bus Service.

Cornell soon formed a partnership with Jack Morrison in Illinois and Jackie Wilson in Massachusetts to form ABC Bus Sales. He eventually bought out his partners, and ABC’s evolution into one of North America’s pre-eminent motorcoach marketing and support firms is well documented.

Because of his experiences running buses, Cornell understood the need that operators had for service and repairs when coaches were away from home. In addition to prepping buses for sale, the Faribault garage became a mecca for charter buses passing through.

In the mid-1970s, Clancy began what the Cornell family refers to as his “first retirement” and moved to Central Florida. He wasn’t very good at retiring, and soon started repairing and selling buses out of a former orange grove in Winter Garden.

It was this second ABC location that planted the seed for ABC’s growth into one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive suppliers of buses, parts and support services.

Fast forward to today, and ABC Companies operates seven service and repair locations in the U.S. and Canada, as well as two parts warehouses. In the first quarter of 2018, ABC is poised to open its eighth service location in Newark, CA – just 15 minutes from its Redwood location.

Since 1987 ABC has been the exclusive distributor for new Van Hool luxury coaches. They also sell used coaches and transit buses; refurbish buses for major carriers; service customer coaches; as well as doing major mechanical and collision repairs. In addition to supplying warranty and replacement parts from every service location, they maintain two dedicated major parts-distribution centers.

ABC’s new Northern California location, opening Q1 2018.

There are two big factors which make ABC Companies different from other operations. Clancy Cornell passed away in 2015, but the company is still run by the Cornells, a family steeped in the bus business. One advantage that a closely-held corporation has is the ability to act quickly, and this has been critical to ABC’s consistent growth and stability.

The new and used coach markets are historically cyclical, and during downturns ABC found alternative opportunities. When it was hard to sell coaches, they repaired them. Between handling parts for the varied brands of used buses they sold and providing OEM parts and warranty support for Van Hool, ABC evolved into a major force in the aftermarket parts market. Even when companies weren’t buying coaches, they still needed parts to maintain their fleets.

When major carriers weren’t purchasing new equipment, they needed someone to refurbish and extend the life of their existing coaches, and ABC was able to help. Along the way, they developed the expertise and infrastructure to do major collision repairs.

Each successful venture was folded into ABC’s long-term business plan, while the occasional disappointments were quickly abandoned. The Cornell’s ability to make decisions and act decisively has kept ABC nimble as it has evolved and expanded.

The second exceptional factor, unparalleled in the industry, is ABC’s ability to do so many different things, with most facilities offering a variety of services. There are worthy competitors in new and used motorcoach sales, and other good body and refurb shops. Several companies sell parts and repair buses. But, what makes ABC unique is their ability to do all these things, often performing many different services out of a single location, at a high level of quality.

The range of skills necessary is significant, but even more impressive is ABC’s management’s ability to juggle competing, and sometimes conflicting, priorities within the same facility. For example, there is a major difference between the assembly line procedures that make refurbishing successful, and the way normal repairs are done. The skills may be similar but the priorities are different.

An assembly-line needs to keep moving in a specific order, while customer repairs may be scheduled with more flexibility. Assembly workers only need to be highly trained in a few skills (performed efficiently), while repair technicians need to be more adaptable. Fitting the worker to the job is crucial.

ABC’s lengthy experience in the coach business gives them an understanding of how important timely delivery is to bus operators. On-time delivery and communication with customers regarding scheduling is critical.

Maintaining the balance between keeping the line moving and delivering a repaired coach to a customer in a timely way is a delicate one that requires skilled management. Combining Pre-Delivery Inspections (PDIs) of new coaches, while installing U.S.-sourced optional equipment is a complex function that must be right every time because new coach buyers expect perfection.

Successfully doing all those things in the same building with body work, mechanical repairs and oil changes, while also meeting customers’ expectations, is a tribute to ABC’s management and employees.

“You have to be master juggler and jack of all trades,” says Ed Harmon, national director of operations for ABC’s Southeastern Region, who runs ABC’s largest and most complex facility in Winter Garden. “Flexibility is key and hiring good people is the only way to achieve that. Every decision about using resources and employees is based on what is best for our customers. My managers and I discuss priorities every day to ensure that every need is taken into consideration and the right person is assigned to every task. It is all about anticipation, coordination and execution.”

“In Winter Garden, John Gillis, vice president of ABC’s Parts Division, makes sure that our internal business is outfitted with parts and makes certain that our post sale and support efforts have what they need,” Harmon adds. “Jay Oakman ensures that all efforts are coordinated on delivery of new coaches between Van Hool, Sales, Service and the customer, and he does an amazing job at that. My job is to make sure we have the labor resources to support dealer-installed options and the PDI process. It all comes together because we have good people.”

Each ABC facility has its own version of Harmon, and one reason for ABC’s success at managing so many different services, in so many locations, is the Cornells’ willingness to trust their local team. Each regional manager is given the authority and responsibility to operate according to local customer needs.

There is a basic corporate structure and accounting mechanism, and the goal is to serve customers, but how they achieve that is mostly controlled at the local level. They offer the familiarity of dealing with a small local business, with the resources of a national company.

It seems to work. There are few organizations as large as ABC who perform so many diverse tasks. Their ability to meld them all together has provided remarkable stability as they’ve weathered the ups and downs of the coach industry.

Currently they have seven service locations near major metropolitan areas. Jersey City, NJ; Camden, NJ; Grand Prairie, TX; Costa Mesa, CA; Redwood, CA; Faribault, MN; and Winter Garden, FL all have facilities in them. In 2015, ABC opened a new facility in Jersey City, NJ, right across the Hudson River from New York City. ABC had long sought a presence in the New York area, but waited until the right location became available.

Dan Quinter, who runs the recently added facility came to ABC after managing maintenance for a major local coach company.

“We’re up and running with a full parts department and service bay for wash, lav dump and interior cleaning,” Quinter says. “If an operator needs service or mechanical repairs, glass replacement or tires in the New York area, we can help. Like most ABC locations, we’ve got a really nice lounge for their drivers.”

“We also do coach refurbs such as front and rear cap upgrades, flooring, seat covers as well as windshield and rear window updates,” he adds. “Before ABC moved in, this building was a bus body shop, and we have the people and equipment to do first-rate collision repairs, body work and paint. About the only thing we don’t have here is sales. Like the San Francisco area facility, we specialize in service and support, with a common goal.”

“We are thrilled to have another large refurbishment contract, this time with Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA),” says Jon Savitz, ABC Companies senior vice president of service operations. “Over the years we’ve served customers as diverse as Greyhound Lines, DATTCO, DC Trails, TRAXX, Polynesian Adventure Tours, Mears Transportation, Megabus, and literally thousands of other coach companies throughout the country. ABC is proud of the fact that with a single phone call you can get anything from a bearing to a bus. Whether it’s a repair, a new or used coach, or a fleet of refurbished buses, we work hard at delivering quality solutions on time.”

Not only has ABC Companies been busy investing in new facilities, but also in its existing facilities. Over the past year the company has made significant improvements at its Minnesota and Texas locations. The Faribault, MN, location has undergone significant efficiency upgrades to become a more environmentally-friendly operation as well as cosmetic improvements, including a driver’s lounge facelift for the comfort of its customers. The Grand Prairie, TX, location has recently completed an extensive renovation that expands and enhances the entire operation. A few of the improvements include complete renovation of office space and the addition of an all-new driver’s lounge. Also, the parts warehouse has been expanded allowing for increased inventory of parts.

Looking ahead, in the first quarter of 2018, ABC will be opening its newest location in Northern California. The new facility at 7980 Enterprise Drive in Newark will serve employer shuttle operations, tour, charter and commuter operators of all sizes and fleet profiles throughout the region. This location will include state-of-the-art diagnostics, maintenance, collision and repair capabilities. ABC will also be adding a 6,000 square-foot parts warehouse and distribution center at this location.

The addition of the Newark facility is unlikely to be the final step in ABC’s evolution. Clancy Cornell would be proud, but not terribly surprised, of where the philosophy he developed has taken ABC Companies. Quality buses sell service – and quality service sells buses.