By Mike Whittaker
Echo Transportation’s partnerships resonate throughout Texas –
When two Texan firms came together last September their shared vision of a diversified, full service transportation offering became a reality. The official merger of friends and business partners Echo Transportation and AFC Transportation resulted in one of the largest ground transportation companies in the state of Texas.
Echo Transportation originated in Wyoming, offering shuttle and charter service primarily to corporate users. As the business grew, Echo President and CEO Chris Jarrard made the decision to expand “back home” to Texas. The firm focused its strategy on acquiring smaller operators throughout the state with a vision to consolidate operations and capture a state-wide market share. Key to the company’s growth was the acquisition of two charter bus companies, GottaGo Trailways and Buses by Bill, which enabled Echo to expand charter operations into Central and South Texas.
Today, the firm is comprised of six smaller operators that have been merged together under the new Echo Transportation name. The combined businesses represent over 30 years of experience in the tour, charter and shuttle markets and have enabled the Echo brand to broaden its reach throughout the entire state of Texas.
Having spent the past year integrating all of the newly-acquired businesses under the Echo banner, Jarrard and his management team sought to take the company to the next level.
“The next logical step was to merge with an equal partner that could help to galvanize our market position,” Jarrard says. “The partnership with AFC Transportation just made great sense.”
In September of 2015, Echo Transportation and AFC Transportation came together to form one of the ten largest ground transportation entities in Texas.
With over 500 employees and a combined fleet of over 300 vehicles, both companies have retained their local branding and maintained their own identity, while tying together centralized reservations, sales, maintenance and vehicle utilization to capitalize on synergies and maximize efficiencies. The fleet consists of sedans, luxury sedans (BMW & Mercedes), SUVs, vans, executive vans, minibuses, school buses, transit buses and paratransit buses as well as mini-coaches and full-size motorcoaches.
Since the merger, Jarrard and John Ferrari, president of AFC Transportation, have continued to jointly focus on fleet growth and utilization with an eye toward ongoing market expansion. Both operations enjoy a firm foothold within a wide-ranging territory that covers Dallas, Fort Worth, Tyler, Waco, San Angelo, Houston and Austin. The principals cite their common values and vision, as well as a longtime friendship as a key component to the partnership.
“Chris and I are born and bred Texans and share similar passion and values,” Ferrari says. “This partnership is a perfect match that amplifies the strengths of both companies’ talented management teams, diverse business skills and a dedicated labor pool and staff that believe in our shared vision.”
He says that vision includes maintaining the very best aspects of both businesses to maximize their overall quality of standards, best business practices, streamlined processes, vehicle utilization and profitability.
Both partners agree that people have been their strongest asset throughout the merger and consolidation process. The company’s “People Powered, Safety Driven” mantra is integral to a company culture that fosters professional growth, and self-empowerment.
“We are fortunate to staff some of the industry’s most respected business leaders,” Ferrari says. “The diversity and business acumen of our staff and leadership team is second to none.”
The company believes that its focus on quality staff, disciplined processes, and high-quality product are the keys to success and that investing in their assets will continue to produce results over the long term.
Investing in the future
As a leading provider to the Dallas / Fort Worth market, Echo Transportation services a variety of market segments. Jarrard estimates that the business is roughly divided into 50-percent shuttle contracts and 50-percent charter service. With a customer-base consisting of municipalities, universities, transit authorities, public and private school districts, church groups, travel agencies, destination planners and CVBs, casinos, the U.S. Military and private corporations, Echo’s service categories include transit, paratransit, fixed route, crew transport, corporate shuttle services, as well as group tour and charter applications.
To support their diverse and growing business model, Echo has made a significant investment in new equipment assets. The firm has taken delivery on a number of new Van Hool equipment models from exclusive North American distributor, ABC Companies, Faribault, MN.
“We can expand our footprint by utilizing our fleet to cover a full range of private and public service,” Jarrard says. “By investing in a diverse, modern and reliable OEM fleet, Echo will continue to capture market share across the entire spectrum of passenger transport.”
Echo has taken delivery on a varied mix of vehicles in the Van Hool lineup including the newest model Van Hool TD925 high-capacity double-decker coaches, as well as new Van Hool CX45 premium passenger coaches. The new equipment is currently used to support contract shuttle projects, as well as for private tour and charter service.
“We have the experience and infrastructure to support virtually any transportation requirement,” Jarrard says. “By offering a full scope of services, Echo is proving its commitment to the region, and we can accommodate any size group and offer the added flexibility of customizing our offering based on an individual customer’s need.”
Echo Transportation is proud of their safety standing which is reinforced through a variety of programs and protocols designed to protect a stellar track record. The company is serious about safety and has instituted a number of policies and procedures to ensure that everyone in the company — especially its motorcoach operators — understand its importance. The Echo safety program integrates safety enforcement rules as well as scheduled retraining sessions to refresh drivers and ensure that their stringent standards are being met. Drivers are also trained on use and maintenance of ADA vehicles. Echo’s in-house Safety Department oversees all aspects of the program and utilizes regularly scheduled road observation and ride checks to monitor and enforce operator safety performance.
Echo uses the Smith System training system to educate their drivers, and retains two full-time advanced Smith System trainers to ensure all drivers receive exacting instruction prior to operating any vehicle. The Smith System integrates training to educate drivers on collision avoidance with the goal of modifying driving habits to be more defensive and at-the-ready in any situation. The Smith System’s “5 Keys” module helps drivers achieve improved visibility in relation to the coach and their surroundings, as well as awareness and adequate time to react with corrective measures. These techniques, often referred to as “cushion driving,” help to conserve fuel, but most importantly they help to save lives of people on the road. Over half of the Fortune 500 companies in America use the Smith System training techniques.
Echo drivers undergo a stringent screening process that includes extensive interviews and a background checking process. Qualified applicants can then attend Echo’s in-depth training program, which blends hands-on training and classroom sessions that maximize trainee success. Training modules cover a wide range of topics and skills, and quarterly refresher training is mandatory to reinforce concepts and maintain important skills. In addition, all Echo drivers participate in random and post-accident drug and alcohol tests and a DMV pull notification program. Successful graduates are qualified to drive luxury motorcoaches, mini buses, and executive suburban vehicles and cars.
Leveraging technology to work smarter
Ensuring a premier passenger experience is a core goal for Echo Transportation, for which the company leverages technology to enhance the passenger experience, protect equipment assets and optimize operational profitability. As such, the firm has deployed technology wherever possible to maximize on-time performance and increase productivity and efficiencies in most business areas.
As part of the merger process, Echo and AFC have centralized operations and implemented new communication technology that effectively streamlines communication enterprise-wide. The new system ties together critical business areas and enables their 24/7 dispatch team to have full fleet visibility. The integrated system helps drivers to communicate directly with dispatch, field-supervisors to manage entire systems and Echo staff to address in-field maintenance with real-time mechanic support in a coach-down or scheduled maintenance situation.
Planning for the future in Texas and beyond
Growth, profitability and driving value to their customers will be at the core of Echo and AFC Transportation’s future plans, according to Jarrard. A key driver will be the continued acquisition and consolidation of ground transport operations across the state of Texas and eventually throughout the entire U.S. Sunbelt region.
As they actively pursue strategies to continue to build and grow the business in both current and in untapped markets, the partners assert that quality people will be the mainstay of their success.
“We’ve dedicated years to forging business alliances that are built on mutual respect and friendship,” Jarrard says. “We believe that by treating people like family, recognizing their talents and trusting their abilities, Echo and AFC will soar to new heights. Our wheels are rolling firmly on the ground in Texas, and now the sky’s the limit for Echo and our partners.”
Mike Whittaker is marketing manager, parts and service, at ABC Companies, Faribault, MN. Visit www.abc-companies.com.