Mission 2013: An Empirical Approach

ABC Companies and Van Hool rely on third-party study to qualify customer satisfaction

By David Hubbard

Clancy Cornell purchased the Faribault Bus Company in 1957 from his brother Eddie, planting the seed for the family legacy that would grow into ABC Companies.

The Van Hool legacy dates back to post-war Belgium, when the young entrepreneur Bernard Van Hool applied his keen business sense to what he saw as a growing need for public transportation. Partnering with his brother-in-law and engineer Frans Van Bouwel, Bernard Van Hool started with building coach bodies and eventually complete vehicles. This family operation included significant roles for all eight of his sons.

The Cornell family met the Van Hools for the first time in January 1987 when these family businesses almost inevitability melded into a partnership. Combining the sales and marketing expertise of ABC Companies with the flexible manufacturing of Van Hool, both companies had written and signed their first distributor agreement by April. Soon after, ABC accepted its first Van Hool T815 motorcoach.

“Our cultures may be a little different as we are from different parts of the world,” says Filip Van Hool. “But our partnership seemed so natural because of all we value in our families and our businesses, and our mutual interest in the same industry.”

The future begins
The relationship has lasted 25 years. For ABC Companies the time spent invites both a reflection on the journey and a look ahead. This reassessment falls under what the company is calling Mission 2013. ABC Companies President and CEO Dane Cornell shares his thoughts with BUSRide on the plan to connect past with present and move the partnership forward.

“Our solid relationship with Van Hool has endured well,” he says. “Both companies spent the first few years getting to know their new partner. We have learned a lot about one another through good times and bad, weathering our financial ups and downs.”

Cornell says the first 25 years meant trying to keep abreast of the evolving motorcoach industry in North America. He points to the continual advancements in technology and the drastic changes that have taken place in the way operators do business.

“Nothing has remained constant,” he says. “However, we have a good idea how each company will react in certain situations, which allows us more flexibility to connect with sudden shifts in the market. Fortunately, we are operating from a platform of trust and understanding to make adjustments. Both partners have remained committed to continuous product development introducing equipment enhancements and upgrades by listening to customers. Van Hool’s flexibility in manufacturing has been a critical success factor for the North American market.”

Clancy Cornell and Alfons Van Hool sign the papers that seal their successful partnership in 1987.

Mission 2013 launches
According to Cornell, Mission 2013 is a timely, empirical approach that spells out how ABC Companies and Van Hool differentiate themselves in the motorcoach industry. He maintains that, to a certain extent, all OEMs are equal.

“For the most part they all have their proprietary design features, but they all build to the same regulatory and safety standards and offer similar onboard amenities,” he says. “Our intent going forward is to concentrate more on how operators truly benefit from purchasing a coach from us. We have heard from operators of mixed fleets who track expenses on parts and labor for the various models. They claim their Van Hool coaches are less expensive to operate cost per mile.”

Cornell says the objectives of Mission 2013 are to drill down to qualify these reports, to understand precisely how ABC Companies and Van Hool motorcoaches offer significant savings while increasing customer satisfaction.

The company says Mission 2013 expands live technical support for operators, with the option to use such programs as Facetime and Skype during business hours. Technicians and drivers can expect more specialized training workshops, tech tips, driver’s guides and online Van Hool manuals, as well as engine regeneration and other instructional videos available via the web and mobile devices.

A T2140 bus arrives in America. The relationship between ABC and Van Hool in Belgium begins to reshape the American bus market.

“We recognize that an efficient fleet is key to operator success,” he says. “We are committed to partnering with our customers to help them reduce their total cost of operation.”

Feedback put to the test
Jon Savitz, ABC Companies vice president, Business Development, says the recently commissioned major third-party research determines the actual costs of maintaining Van Hool vehicles.

ABC Companies engaged Joel Sears, an independent consultant with experience in fleet maintenance software and data analysis, to conduct an analysis of maintenance records across several mixed-fleet operators who shared their data. Sears says the maintenance records they provided covered more than 75 million miles. In addition to the mixed-fleet operators, his research included one Van Hool-only operator as a control group.

Sears analyzed the life-to-date parts and labor costs, excluding collision repair, tires and fuel.

He kept the individual customer data confidential in accordance with agreements with the participating operators and aggregated the findings of his research for purposes of confidentiality.

“Perhaps the most surprising or revealing piece of information indicated in the research was a significant difference in the average maintenance cost-per-mile between comparable coach models,” says Sears. “Overall, the average maintenance cost for Van Hool coaches was 10 cents lower per mile.”

According to Sears, 10 cents per mile translates into an average of 33 percent lower maintenance costs for Van Hool coaches against competitive models.

According to the research, an operator running a Van Hool motorcoach 70,000 miles a year can expect a projected maintenance cost savings of $7,000 annually.

“ABC Companies plans to continue and expand upon this maintenance cost research,” says Cornell. “Our goal is to identify specific components, parts change intervals, and maintenance best practices that may help further reduce total cost of ownership for operators.”

Sears is a 36-year veteran of the fleet management industry. He began as an operations research analyst for PHH Arval, the nation’s largest independent fleet leasing company. He eventually founded Fleet Technologies, Inc. to provide technology-based services to fleet managers. He presently oversees AssetWorks, the world’s largest supplier of fleet maintenance software.

Sears says he tries to combine rigorous mathematical and data automation techniques with a common-sense approach that allows operators to save money and improve fleet productivity.

His company employs analytical methods for filling gaps in data as well as simulation techniques. He says this demonstrates the impact of change prior to his customers implementing new and costly management strategies.

Where a lagging economy has challenged the industry, Cornell says Sears’ research provides a way to communicate with operators and help keep money in their pockets.

Three generations of the Cornell Family– from left to right; Dane Cornell, President & CEO; Roman Cornell, VP of Sales; Clarence Cornell, Chairman of the Board; Ashley Cornell, VP of Customer Care; Ryhan Cornell, Account Executive ABC FL.

“Operators are changing their business practices and purchasing patterns,” he says. “It is no longer business as usual. They are keeping vehicles longer, and we have had to make changes in our approach to support their efforts.”

He points to the refurbishing operations in Nappanee, IN, and Winter Garden, FL.

“As operators learn more about managing their fleets in the current economy, they may buy one new coach and choose to refurbish one of their older vehicles,” he says. “Our ability to diversify within our own operations is helping customers get more value from their fleets.”

Van Hool in lockstep
Van Hool announced early last year its plan to build an additional manufacturing facility to support its commitment to increased production to meet demand from its North American customers. The new plant in Macedonia near Skopje will enable the manufacturer to reduce cycle time from order to delivery.

“Our manufacturing partner is in total lockstep with Mission 2013 and our shared vision to invest in the North American market,” says Cornell. “With the new plant, our customers will come to rely on a consistently shorter lead time for their new coach deliveries.” BR