A new podcast: Every day safe to school with Thomas Built Buses

As an engineer, I’ve built many spectacular machines: sports cars, trucks weighing many tons, even satellites. But I’ve found my most rewarding job of all at Thomas Built Buses. As the company’s chief engineer, I’m responsible for the development and production of school buses in the USA. Here and in our Daimler-Podcast “HeadLights” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Google Podcasts, I talk about the origins of the company, my concept of a good team, and the timeless significance of school buses. Step right in!

More than 100 years of corporate history. Stringent standards of safety and quality. Number One on the market. Does all that sound familiar to you? No, by way of exception, today I’m not talking about Gottlieb Daimler, Carl Benz, and the origins of Daimler AG. Instead, I’m talking about a relatively new, yet very experienced, member of the Daimler family: Thomas Built Buses, which has its headquarters in High Point, North Carolina.

This company, which was founded in 1916, has been owned by our truck subsidiary Freightliner since 1998. What does that have to do with me? The answer is simple: I’m the Vice President of Engineering at Thomas Built Buses. To put it in a nutshell, I’m the chief engineer. It’s one of the best jobs a person could possibly have.

A school bus is more than a vehicle

The main reason for that is our products. We build school buses for the US market. Even people who haven’t grown up on this side of the Atlantic are generally familiar with our deep-yellow vehicles. That’s because Hollywood also loves these buses, which inspire a sense of trust and can seat between 40 and 80 schoolchildren. There’s no high school comedy film without a school bus scene!

What I like most of all is the social and societal aspect of our work. We are responsible for getting about 25 million schoolchildren to school safely in the USA every day. All over the country, people can go to work in the morning without having to worry about how their children will get to school. At our company, safety is the top priority. The first thing I do every morning is to check and make sure that all of our vehicles have reached their destinations without any problems.

My area of responsibility is generally different from the work done by the engineers in Sindelfingen or Untertürkheim. We do almost everything related to our three models — Saf-T-Liner S2, the EFX/HDX, and the somewhat smaller Minotour — entirely by ourselves: research, development, testing, and production. I have to maintain an overview of all of these activities, and every day I have to decide whether I’ll begin by “putting out fires” — in other words, solving current problems — or forge ahead with the company’s overall strategic development.

Thomas Built Buses gets a niche market moving

My interest in machines and vehicles was something I was practically born with. I grew up in the “car state” of Michigan, and I worked in the vehicle production industry for many years. As a result, when I started my current job I realized very soon that the market for school buses is very special.

When visitors take a first look at our school buses, they often say, “Not very much has changed since my own schooldays.” That’s absolutely right! Unlike cars, school buses simply don’t need the very latest design and technology features. As a result, the school bus market was for a long time one of the least dynamic markets in the transportation sector. But the times are changing.

At the moment, the trend we’re focusing on is e-mobility. As it happens, school buses are ideally suited for this type of drive system. That’s because they have a perfectly plannable daily rhythm! In the morning they drive a big circuit, then they take a break for several hours, which gives them time for recharging, and in the afternoon they drive the same circuit all over again.

The all-electric Saf-T Liner “Jouley” by Thomas Built Buses

Those are the ideal requirements for using electric drive systems efficiently. In 2017 we made the first presentation of our fully electric “Jouley” school bus, which can seat up to 81 children. It was a pioneering move — and that’s exactly what people expect of Daimler. Series production of the Jouley will begin in 2019.

School bus construction is not part of any curriculum

This technological transformation is also affecting my work. In the podcast, I explain in detail my concepts of a good team and modern leadership. I can tell you this much now: Here in North Carolina, a hierarchical mindset in which the boss shows the way and the employees follow has long been a thing of the past. I encourage all of my colleagues to be bold and to search for their own solutions.

As a result, when we’re looking for new hires, we focus on finding the people who are just right for us. We don’t think it makes sense to simply hire people by looking at their qualifications, because school bus construction is something you can’t learn at a school or a university. There are only three companies in the whole world that build school buses, so we can’t expect our job applicants to have specific experience in this field. We simply ask them the following questions: Do you enjoy solving problems? Do you know what product development really means? Are you curious, bold, meticulous? Giving the right answers to these questions is almost more important than having the right educational background.

Satellites are great — but school buses are even better

I especially like working with talented young people. My career path has consisted of several stages. I worked at General Motors for a long time and in the aerospace industry for a number of years. I had wonderful assignments and helped to make spectacular products. But after a while, even these things lost their charm. I would sometimes say jokingly, “Satellites are great — but after they’ve been built, you’ll never see them again!” With school buses, I really don’t have that problem.

These are the three things I especially love about my job:

  • Its uniqueness: Only a very small group of people in the world know how to build a perfect school bus. We’re part of that group.
  • The social benefits: Education is the basis of everything. We make sure that all children can get to school safely, no matter where they live or what kind of personal background they have.
  • Safety: Studies have shown that riding a school bus is the safest way for children to get to school. We’re doing everything we can to make sure this continues to be the case.

If I were granted one wish…

…it would be this: I wish that no child will ever again be injured on his or her way to school. The Thomas family has been committed to this mission for generations. The last family member who was actively involved in the company was with us when we celebrated the company’s 100th anniversary. In the podcast, I’ll go into more detail about the qualities that make this company, my work, and our newest products so special. I’m convinced that this working environment won’t lose its charm for me anytime soon.


Listen to, subscribe, and rate our podcast “HeadLights” on the following platforms: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

Leslie Kilgore is Vice President of Engineering at Thomas Built Buses in High Point, North Carolina. She is responsible for product development of the school buses: The design, the testing, the analysis. Innovations and technologies as well as supporting the production unit are also part of her daily work. Leslie previously worked in aerospace for a long time, but she came to the conclusion that satellites are great – but as soon as they are completed you never see them again! She definitely does not have this problem with school buses.