Certainly, the school bus industry has taken notice of recent innovations from Micro Bird, a joint venture between Girardin Minibus of Quebec and Blue Bird, allowing the brand to become the market share leader last year in the ultra-competitive and ever-fluctuating Type-A segment.
Not to be confused with the flagship Type-C model of its U.S. partner, the vision at Micro Bird is to be recognized across the bus industry as the best vehicle supplier based on customer satisfaction and technological innovation.
For 50 years, the Type-A school bus manufacturer has more than accomplished that feat, helped by the most unique perspective and experience in the market. That’s what happens when a company adds to its longevity three distinct skill sets, namely being a dealership, a transportation provider and a manufacturer of its own minibus. Despite not entering the U.S. market until 1988, Micro Bird, the brand name of Girardin Minibus, is the oldest manufacturer of its kind when factoring in its Canadian history. It is truly also one of the industry’s first “DIAY” student transportation companies, as in “Do It All Yourself.”
More recently, Micro Bird has also stood out for being the first to embrace the Ford Transit cutaway chassis to reduce costs for customers, as well as to provide drivers and passengers with more comfortable rides.
Phil Horlock, president and CEO of Blue Bird, called the partnership with Girardin on the Micro Bird T-Series “a game-changer” and indicative of the safety, durability and quality that customers have come to expect of the Type-A brand.
“We are proud to recognize our outstanding partnership with the Girardin family over the past 50 years,” Horlock said. “The Girardin family’s expertise in the manufacturing, distribution and operation of buses is known throughout the industry, and no-one builds a higher quality Type A bus than Micro Bird. I would like to congratulate Girardin for their legacy in small-bus innovation and for passionately serving the Type A customer with our Blue Bird Micro Bird products. We look forward to continuing our Micro Bird success with Girardin for many more years to come.”
But the value of embracing technology is also a result of the propane-autogas option and, before that, the development of its flagship MB-II as well as the launch of the dual-wheel Girardin G5, which was redesigned with customer needs in mind, not the least of these being their budgets.
“Market-turning innovations,” in the words of Steve Girardin, president and CEO of Girardin Minibus, is simply what his family has always strived for. “It’s not about disruptive technology as much as it’s about raising the bar all the time and making sure the standards improve all the time,” he said.
Interestingly, despite being centered in hockey country, the company regularly uses the common basketball vernacular “plus-one” to describe continual improvement that developed from customer service training Steve received years ago.
“How do we do things better each time for our customers, our employees? It’s about developing an impactful experience,” he said recently at company headquarters in Drummondville, Quebec, about 108 km—roughly 65 miles—northeast of Montreal. “When we look to innovate, that’s what we strive for.”
Whether that is improved safety, fuel economy, driver visibility, vehicle handling or a variety of engine offerings and benefits. Spend five minutes with the Girardin and his quiet intensity belies a desire to remain at the cutting edge, yet also remain cognizant of the industry’s true needs, a value and insight passed down to him by the family patriarch and lived by all 400 plant employees every day. He also innately and intimately respects the process because it’s in his blood to do so.
While this year Girardin Minibus celebrates its 50th anniversary, the company’s automotive roots reach back to at least 1935, when Steve’s grandfather, Lionel, opened a used-car dealership and repair business next to his own father’s blacksmith shop in Saint-Felix-de-Kingsey, just down the road from the company’s current headquarters.
Ever the innovator and long-fascinated with automobiles, Lionel heard opportunity knocking with the increased consumer appetite for passenger cars in the 1950s. He built a service station and another, and later began selling used cars with brother Rénald before becoming a Dodge DeSoto dealer.
That same decade, Lionel was awarded one of Quebec’s first student transportation contracts, as rural students increasingly needed a way to get from their homes in the country to new schools being built in town. By 1958, he bought an old bus at a local scrap yard that he and his sons, André, Steve’s dad, and Marcel, helped him paint yellow. Within a few years, Lionel obtained franchises to sell Wayne and Superior school buses.
The year 1966 was very pivotal for the Girardin family. Lionel and his sons uprooted the company from St-Félix-de-Kingsey to Drummondville, where it is located today, and ceased car sales to focus solely on buses. All in the same year, Girardin began its relationship with Blue Bird and began converting small school buses, and voila…Girardin Minibus. The foundation for Micro Bird, was born.
Lionel passed away in 1972, but the company trajectory was set. From this point forward, André and Marcel continued the expansion with the eventual help of their younger brothers.
In 1979, the very first Blue Bird built Micro Bird designed bus was built on a dare, when Steve said André encouraged the Blue Bird engineering team to build a small bus with big bus components. The engineers balked, so André, eager to prove them wrong, built the bus himself on a GMC cutaway chassis at the Drummondville plant and presented it to Blue Bird, who built and sold the platform through out the 1980s and 1990s.
Since the late 1970s, Girardin and Blue Bird have had multiple, joint small-bus projects ranging from parts agreements to marketing arrangements. It was in Oct. 2009 that their most significant venture took form with the current Micro Bird partnership.
Barry Stock, along with brother Brian, built Stock Transportation into one of the largest school bus contractors in North America before selling the family business to National Express Corporation. Stock said he has greatly respected the Girardin family since the early days. Now the founding principal of Landmark Transportation with Brian, Barry Stock recalled his first visit to Drummondville about 40 years ago, when he traveled from Ontario with their father to pick up a new mini-bus they had ordered.
Stock said he remembers well when André was responding to needs in the student transportation industry. Since, he said he’s watched the Girardin conglomerate grow by leaps and bounds, and he attributed the success to three main ingredients. The Girardins, Stock listed, have been attentive to the industry’s needs, delivered quality products backed by “exceptional” service and, finally, exhibited the necessary patience and understanding “that sooner than later at least one area of the family’s expertise will be needed.”
“Their vertical integration through A. Girardin Blue Bird dealership, Girardin Minibus or Transport Scolaire Sogesco (the student transportation contracting business) has been impressive and unmatched in this unique industry,” said Stock, who is also a former NSTA president and a member of the association’s Hall of Fame.
All the while, Steve Girardin paid close attention. The oldest son of André, he and brother, Dave, became immersed in all things related to the family business at young ages. Steve recently said he recalls attending various events and work-related activities throughout his and Dave’s childhood. Steve even told of working in the plant alongside the company’s employees.
“I spent most if not all my summers working on buses and building buses on the production line,” he said. “These were great learning experiences, as (they) taught us the inner workings of manufacturing, dealership and fleet operations. We believe we are the only company with an internal manufacturer, dealer and contractor relationship. It’s an interesting value proposition that allows us to be very well connected at all levels.”
That connection is made not only to customers but also to Girardin employees. Steve said the average worker has been with the company for 10 to 15 years, so “tribal knowledge” proliferates.
“This has built the culture of community and polarization as everyone is working toward a common objective,” Steve Girardin said. “We’ve recently trained employees on lean manufacturing, an ongoing process to improve what we do and how we do things. Throughout our decisions and processes, the voice of customer remains the most important guide that drives our evolution.”
For example, employee feedback has led to eliminating wasteful motion in the plant and reconfiguring the line to create more open spaces that allow additional workers at stations to increase both quality and efficiency. Rather than invest in excessive brick and mortar, Girardin has combined operations to cut stations and increase volume. Efficiencies have also reached the buses themselves, as Steve discussed how customers and workers recommended the installation of automated entrance doors rather than the manual variety to speed up the manufacturing process and eliminated wasted employee motion. In fact, Girardin Minibus was the first school bus manufacturer to integrate the electric entrance door as standard equipment.
While Steve leads the manufacturing operations at Micro Bird, his brother, Dave, is responsible for the family’s two Blue Bird dealerships and fleet operation that operate in both Québec and Ontario. Ironically, the Ontario dealership, which opened eight years ago, is located in the old Canadian Blue Bird factory in Brandford, Ontario.
“Both Dave and Steve have the character traits that their father crafted his early successes on. They are professionals who strive to be the best at what they do,” Stock said.
From a young age, their experiences in nearly everything the business had to offer also exposed Steve and Dave to the realities they would face at multiple levels within the organization, allowing them to build lasting relationships with their employees.
“Some employees, at one time or another in our career, were our bosses and we respected that chain of command,” Steve Girardin said.
Steve added that his and Dave’s upbringing also helped them prepare to deal with disaster, like the one that struck in 1999 when a tornado severely damaged the production plant as well as hundreds of newly manufactured buses that were staged for delivery.
“Over the course of 50 years, there are many challenges a company like ours faces. Some are definitely more spectacular and stand out more than others,” Steve Girardin said. “However, the most important challenge we continually face is change. Change is the only constant in our past and we envision it will be an important part of our future. We believe change creates the opportunities for us to further the boundaries of innovation and evolution. In the end, our ability to overcome challenges as a team only ensure a bright future for the next 50-plus years.”
Furthermore, according to Steve, who took the reins of Girardin Minibus as president in 2003, “School buses have always been part of mine and my brothers’ lives as our father was in the business before we were born. In short, our lives have never been without the school bus businesses. We even had the privilege, as kids, of using some of the marketing props such as the go-kart replicas our father built. Contributing to the business in various forms was always part of growing up in our family.”
Those same family values carry on today. Steve Girardin said his father, André, now semi-retired and no longer involved in day-to-day activities, retains his seat on the board and acts as their best consultant. He always taught him and Dave that, no matter what they do, do it for the right reasons. Steve said the company builds its buses in the same manner.
“His priority has always been for us to do something we are passionate about. That passion translates into being the best at what we do and the rest follows naturally,” he added. “Another important value is the importance and respect of people. People are at the core of what we do and the foundation of our success.”
As for the next 50 years, Steve Girardin said he’s hopeful that he’ll live to see some of the evolution, but either way he is confident that the customer will continue to be first and the company’s school buses will remain on the cutting edge.
“Girardin will continue to focus on growth without forgetting what got us here, the best cost of ownership we can deliver and quality as we continue to raises the bar for the industry and to challenge the status quo,” he said. “And always strive to deliver the plus-one.”