Blue Bird CEO discusses rise in propane school bus sales

December 15, 2016 By    
Blue Bird Gen4 Vision bus

Blue Bird sold 2,240 propane autogas buses in 2016, a 33 percent increase compared to figures in 2015. Photo courtesy of Blue Bird

Blue Bird Corp.’s propane school bus sales increased 33 percent this year compared to figures reported in 2015, according to the company’s latest financial report.

The school bus manufacturer sold 2,240 autogas buses in 2016 – 693 in the fourth quarter alone, the company reports. In addition, propane buses made up about 21 percent of the company’s total sales in 2016.

LP Gas magazine spoke with Phil Horlock, president and CEO of Blue Bird, earlier this year to gauge his opinion on the propane autogas school bus market.

LP Gas: What is the outlook for Blue Bird’s propane bus options?

Horlock: We’re growing. Last year, propane was 16 percent of our mix of buses. Now, it’s 20 percent of our market. We want to grow again next year. I think we’ll keep seeing this grow in our mix as we go forward. There’s no reason we can’t grow it. There are about 10,000 school districts in North America and only 600 of those have tried propane yet. There’s growth potential for this as we push our product forward and spread the word on propane.

LP Gas: What has contributed the most to your propane school bus sales growth?

Horlock: Our dealerships. We have 50 dealers across North America, about one in each state. We have our dealers test propane, and often they will order the propane [bus] after trying it. Also, it’s helped talking to transportation directors for their thoughts. We’ve looked at a five-year period that once people try a certain engine type they will stick to it. We’ve found that propane has twice the owner loyalty compared to diesel. Once they try propane for five years, they don’t try anything but propane. That’s powerful loyalty.

LP Gas: Are there any obstacles in this market in promoting the propane bus?

Horlock: There aren’t many obstacles. One thing that is pertinent is I think you have to make it easy for a school district. They want to know that the infrastructure is easy for them. They wonder where the filling station will be placed and whether there is a fixed price on the fuel. So provide them with these answers so they know what to expect.

LP Gas: What advice would you give to propane marketers for connecting with school districts and promoting autogas to them?

Horlock: Make infrastructure investments simple. Also, if you can lock in prices, it takes that mystery out of it for the customer. If you want to be a player in this market, feel free to reach out to us. We’d love to partner with you and connect you with a school district. Let’s make it easy together for the customer to get fuel consistently to their buses.

LP Gas: What are some final thoughts you would like to share on the autogas school bus?

Horlock: This is a game-changer for the industry. It’s an exciting time for the school bus business as there’s interest in propane. It’s tough to accept most alternative fuels because of the cost. Electric buses are expensive to put in. But propane? It’s affordable alternative fuel in regard to infrastructure and cost per gallon. It’s perfect for our industry.

About the Author:

Megan Smalley was an associate editor at LP Gas magazine.

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