A sleek front mask. Curb appeal. Fashion-forward design. Powerful lines. Futuristic. Streamlined. Those are the adjectives used to describe today’s transit bus and were used at a presentation of four new D35LFR New Flyer buses to St. Cloud Metropolitan Transit Commission.
The sky was clear, the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day in St. Cloud for the presentation to Metro Bus of its new buses at the EconomicDevelopment Partnership breakfast while many community members and business leaders were on hand.
St. Cloud’s Economic Development Partnership is committed to enhancing the region’s economy and works with the public and private sector to develop high-quality jobs, a well-trained workforce and a growing tax base for the region and the direction New Flyer has taken in the last few years focuses on those same principles.
New Flyer operates manufacturing facilities in Winnipeg, MB; Crookston, Minn., and in St. Cloud, Minn. At the presentation, New Flyer President and CEO Paul Soubry says, “We have over 600 employees here and our exec team met with all of our employees this morning and I can tell you there’s a tremendous amount of pride with those people being able to build something that operates and performs in their local community.”
From Airplanes to Buses
Soubry says his background came from sitting at the dinner table every night with a “coach” talking about people; how to do the right thing for your customers, your employees and your shareholders.
He tells the story of how during the Second World War his father’s house in Belgium was taken over by the Germans and he came to Canada and Winnipeg in 1948, got a job and worked his way up from a trainee all the way to CEO of a company.
“It’s kind of hokey, but people think about heroes and who’s your hero and so forth, and every night at the dinner table I have a coach …,” he says. “I was very fortunate.”
Prior to New Flyer, Soubry worked for 24 years at StandardAero, his last position being president and CEO.
He describes the company as a neat success story of a small local business, not unlike New Flyer. “That grew to the point where we were acquired a number of times and ultimately acquired in ’07 by the ruler of Dubai who was trying to set up a world aerospace company of world-class players.”
His desire to live in the same community and to stay in a general management-type role was what brought him to New Flyer.
“The CEO of New Flyer at the time was just in the process of retiring and so it was a great opportunity to join a business that’s in transportation and has a lot of the same principles of how to operate a facility, how to manage both the selling and the servicing of a product, dealing with both private and public companies,” Soubry says.
When he started at StandardAero it was at $100 million and when he left, a $1.5 billion with facilities all over the world. The opportunity to be acquiring businesses in multiple countries, growing and signing very large government contracts and negotiating bank arrangements and the continuing education to learn from a lot of other people is just some of the experience he has brought to New Flyer.
As he says, “It is kind of getting us from just a good bus company, now to a great bus company that has a whole lifecycle and service perspective, which is the world I grew up in.”
Soubry made a change from a sexy industry that works with everything from military aircraft to helicopters to VIP airplanes. But, he says that is coming to the bus transit market.
“There is a perception that I think is widely inappropriate about how transit is about the gravely, dirty, noisy bus with black smoke coming out of it.
“The current generation, the look, the styling, the comfort, the advent and proliferation of bus rapid transit to move people in high volumes, there is a lot of sexiness coming to the bus transit market.”
He adds, “I think it’s a huge opportunity to communicate to the world, transit is really adding this sexiness component to it. You think about a person wanting a technician job or an engineering job or styling or marketing; we’ve got a lot to offer.”
“I think I never understood,” Soubry admits of public transit, “what a critical service public transit is and yes, there are people who can only use public transit because that is all they can afford, but the congested cities, the green footprint, the pollution ...” He stresses, “We can play a huge role from transit, way bigger than I imagined.
“There’s a huge opportunity to turn people’s opinion around that it isn’t just a dumpy old bus, that this is the way I move through my city.”
And the advanced technology is helping to change that perception. As he says, you look back 10 years at the buses being delivered to the vehicles of today, there’s a vast difference. “You think about clean diesel and natural gas and electric hybrids or electric-diesel and gas hybrids, you look at electric trolleys …
“We just delivered 20 hydrogen fuel cells which is a big science project, bleeding edge, not just leading edge, but a bleeding-edge investment in technology; we’re really pushing the envelope.
“Sooner or later we’re going to get into very focused strategies on all-electric technologies, reducing weight and noise and consumption …
“We saw as a consumer in a computer world, things changing very quickly. You know, a new iPod every bloody six months … We’re starting to see that speed of technology change in our industry.”
A Transformation in the Industry
The industry has evolved for bus manufacturers in that it’s no longer about just building a bus. A transfer of risk means things such as extended warranties or recycle programs, more of a partnership with the OEM and not just a delivered bus.
Soubry says today’s customers want to know they get guarantees and confidences that the operating costs over the lifecycle of the bus is going to be appropriate and fair and offer opportunities for improvement.
Responding to this shift, Soubry explains what they have been doing in Ottawa. OC Transpo has 226 New Flyer artics. With the harsh winters and geography of lots of hills, the articulated buses that were designed and delivered may have been underpowered for the tough operating environment he says.
“We’re going to stand behind our bus. It’s got our name on the front of it and regardless of what the issues are, that New Flyer bus is going to be operating and performing for them.”
The conversation proliferated, Soubry says, expanding on how to transform the fleet to share in some of the risk, how to extend the warranty so that they were mutually aligned in their incentive as opposed to ‘they made more because they sold more parts.’ “It’s more of a partnership.”
Responding to that he says, “We came up with a scenario where we would set up a local service center to provide dedicated campaign and warranty support.” He adds, “For lack of a better phrase, we put our money where our mouth is.
“New Flyer’s using that as a lead experiment to learn how to fundamentally change the relationship with transit agencies,” he states.
“We’re going to sell in the span of a year, 360 articulated buses. The customer has opened the kimono; they’re giving us access to all the operating data and the cost and so forth so at the end of the day, a pretty neat opportunity for us to prove the concept about changing the relationship.”
New Flyer opened a service center to work with Ottawa at the beginning of this year.
“I think we’ve come to the realization as a business, and we’ve got a lot of experience at New Flyer; one size isn’t going to fit all in transit,” Soubry states. “Every customer, based on their local community, their local needs, is going to have different requirements.”
With this facility, they get to try their experiment in a controlled way with a sizeable fleet to see if or how it could work for other operators.
“We’re almost looking at it as a puzzle; different pieces of the puzzle work for different operators,” he explains. “We’ve got to make sure that we get all the pieces that we can build puzzle A for this operator and puzzle B for that operator from a service and support offering.”
A Transformation at New Flyer
New Flyer is in the middle of a cultural and physical transformation, investing in the facility and the way it builds buses.
“When we look at our safety metrics over the last 10 years, it’s one-tenth of the safety incidence we had 10 years ago,” Soubry says. “The number of incidences, the number of grievances we get from our union partners is down.”
The factories don’t have warehouses anymore. Instead of parts coming in on trucks and being put in a warehouse, they come straight in to staging areas on the shop floor. Walking through the St. Cloud facility it’s clean and open and there are places clearly labeled for each part, each piece of equipment needed at each point along the manufacturing process. When you go out back, there are leftover shelves, benches cabinets, etc., that had been on the shop floor.
“The quality of the work environment in terms of, I walk in and it’s bright, it’s safe and it’s clean and everything’s organized,” Soubry states. “It has to help improve motivation when that person goes and installs something on that bus.
“Sure we’re growing our business, but that’s a combination of trying to get efficiency out of the same cost base to stay cost-competitive,” he says. “Also, continuing to add fresh ideas, new approaches to young people to balance our experience in the work force.”
Soubry relays a sporting analogy, “It’s not like we don’t want to win one championship. We want to win it every bloody year and to do so, it’s a process.
“If we stop and just look insular, we’re not going to have our head up looking, how to train, how to treat people, how to pay, provide growth or career opportunities.”
With today’s economy, he says there aren’t a lot of people with their head up, looking outside the company, so their focus has been engagement and job satisfaction. “And honestly, there are lots of places in New Flyer where we need to continue to work on that.”
One of those areas was that there wasn’t a consistent methodology of everyone being trained to the same standard, whether looking at the training of technicians, engineers or leadership positions.
The New Flyer Institute came out of that. “We do a lot of internal training and a lot of external training and so now, being able to add a little formality to that and structure to it so that when somebody gets New Flyer, somebody gets into a leadership position, or we teach a customer, we’ve got consistency around that rather than just a bunch of disparate training,” he says.
Other improvements include daily stand-up meetings, visual control systems and metrics, social committees and the recent APTA AdWheel award winner, its intranet system.
“Making it sustainable is about, it’s not a person that does a job, but a system that’s working together,” Soubry says. “It’s a never-ending journey, but it delivers better buses and it makes us more money.
“Take that sort of an environment, from an employee that feels, ‘I just build buses.’ No you don’t, you’re a really important part of this team. Whether it’s baseball, softball, the company picnic, whatever, so that when you go home, you’re with your family saying, ‘I work at New Flyer.’
“When your kid goes to school, they’re saying, ‘My mom or dad works at New Flyer,’ it’s very different than, ‘My mom or dad has a job.’
He stresses, “I want people to come to work, and not because they have to and to improve what they do because they want to.
“This is our team. This is our company.”