O'Brien Buses Makes Thomas Its Fleet Standard
(Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in American School and University Magazine.)
Gary O'Brien's first grade school bus is something he'll never forget. "I was a little six-year-old in Plymouth, N.C., and the contrast between me and this big, yellow school bus was amazing. It was very old. And, when it rained, water would actually come up from the front floor board and hit you in the face."
The next year, when Gary went out to catch the bus, he was thrilled to discover that his old bus had been replaced with a brand new bus. "It was nothing like the bus we'd ridden before. It was new, plush and comfortable. And it was a Thomas. I remember tracing the Thomas logo that's imprinted on the seat backs."
At the early age of seven, Gary became a Thomas Bus fan. And he still is. As owner and operator of O'Brien Buses in College Park, Maryland, Gary has a fleet of seven buses-all of them Thomas-which he buys and contracts to public and private schools. He enjoys his work, which becomes increasingly obvious when he talks about it: "We take kids on field trips, to sporting events, drop them off at summer camp; we have a lot of fun. When we take athletic teams to away games, we feel like we're part of the team. "The kids sometimes claim they won the game because our Thomas bus took them there." That doesn't surprise Gary at all.
He attributes much of his success to Thomas. After all, Thomas has been a positive force in his life since he was a teen. When Gary was 14, his church youth group had scheduled a snow skiing trip in the mountains of North Carolina. Unfortunately, the bus they had, a retired county activity bus, which had previously been a retired prison bus, wasn't capable of transporting them across the state. Gary got permission to sell the old bus and single-handedly raised funds for a newer one. After researching the different buses available, his belief in Thomas was confirmed. His church purchased a Thomas Built Bus. His youth group went snow skiing. And, Gary hung a shiny chrome Thomas bus emblem on his bedroom wall.
During his sophomore year in high school, Gary's fascination with Thomas buses inspired an article in the school newspaper. That article made its way to Thomas headquarters in High Point, N.C. John Thomas Jr., the president of the company at the time, flew his private plane to Plymouth Airport to meet him. The press was there. And when Gary and his high school principal picked Mr. Thomas up in the Thomas Built Bus that belonged to Gary's church, Gary became a local celebrity. After a tour of the school, Mr. Thomas flew Gary and his principal to High Point to tour the plant. And Gary was hooked on Thomas Built Buses.
At 16, Gary got his commercial driver's license and fulfilled a childhood dream by driving a Thomas Bus for his high school. He continued to drive buses when he went to college at East Carolina University. ECU had a progressive, student-operated transit service and Gary was soon promoted to manager. During the summers, he worked for Thomas - enlisting friends to help him drive new buses from the company headquarters to schools across the country. The experience affected them all.
"My friends used to kid me about my interest in buses," Gary says. "But after that summer job, they understood. In fact, the ones who used to kid me the most are still in the industry themselves." His former college roommate, Binford Sloan, is now superintendent of Transportation for Pitt County Public Schools in North Carolina. While Ryland Walters, another college friend, is a Customer Support Regional Manager at Thomas Built Buses. O'Brien Buses is one of his accounts. "I ask Ryland a million questions all the time," Gary says with a grin. "And, I still make him drive me by the Thomas lot when I visit him in High Point."
After graduating from ECU with a self-styled major in urban and regional planning, Gary headed to the University of Maryland in College Park. They had the same kind of student-run transportation system as ECU, and he worked there while taking a graduate course. He soon landed a job as Transportation Director for a local public school system.
There he honed his skills in routing and managing while learning the contract bus business. He liked his job, but disliked sitting behind a desk. He missed driving. So when the school system downsized a year later, he decided to open his own contract bus business.
In 1995, Gary bought his first school bus. A Thomas, of course. He began calling on private schools in Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland, providing buses and drivers to private schools for regular daily runs and to public schools, daycares, retirement homes and universities for activities, tours and field trips. He slowly began to increase his fleet, buying two new Thomas buses from American Bus Sales and Service in Annapolis, MD. "Having a good full-service distributor close by is a big advantage," says Gary.
Today, O'Brien Buses has a fleet of seven Thomas Buses, including conventionals and transit style buses for getting around the crowded streets of D.C. And Gary and his drivers stay busy. "I've logged more miles on a Thomas bus than any other vehicle I've ever owned," he claims. "But I've done exactly what I wanted to do. Things have fallen into place. I've built a business with a reputation for friendliness and dependability. And, being in College Park, I get to hire a lot of students so they can work their way through school like I did. One of my employees has decided to become a teacher because he enjoys spending time with the kids on the bus." As for the future, Gary has high hopes.
"I'd like to be doing this same thing 10 to 20 years from now. And I would really like to start a scholarship for school transportation management. There's nothing like that out there for people with an interest in transportation." In the meantime, Gary's planning a trip back to Plymouth, N.C., for his 10-year high school reunion. While he's in town, he plans to stay with his parents where a chrome Thomas emblem still hangs on his bedroom wall. When asked if he's planning to drive to his reunion, Gary doesn't hesitate. "Sure, I'll drive," he says with a grin. "I may even drive a Thomas bus."