The division of Blue Bird Corporation that produces motorhomes is going to greater lengths now to fill a niche in the marketplace.
By Lazelle Jones
For decades, the name “Blue Bird” has emblazoned the bright yellow buses many children ride to school. It also has been a familiar moniker in the motorhome industry.
The Blue Bird Corporation was established in 1927, when Albert L. Luce Sr. built a bus at the suggestion of one of the customers at his Ford automobile dealership. The customer used a bus to transport workers for his cement company. This customer didn’t end up buying the bus he inspired Mr. Luce to build. Instead, it was sold to a gentleman who used it to transport children to school. Blue Bird soon specialized in making school buses and today still excels in that industry.
The first luxury Blue Bird Wanderlodge motor coach was produced in 1963, after members of the Luce family, who were boating enthusiasts, decided that many of the things they enjoyed on the high seas could be incorporated in the school buses they were building.
Between 1963 and today, more than 4,000 Blue Bird Wanderlodge motorhomes have rolled out of the Blue Bird factory in Fort Valley, Georgia. Interestingly, all but a few of those coaches can be accounted for today. Blue Bird Wanderlodge owners are enthusiastic about their homes on wheels.
The company founded so long ago has changed hands several times over the years. The Luce family sold out to Merrill Lynch Capital Partners, which sold the company to Henlys Group plc, a British firm. In the fall of 2004 Henlys sold the company to Peach County Holdings Inc. Peach is owned by Volvo Group, the Henlys’ banking syndicate, individuals in Blue Bird management, and the trustee of the Henlys Group pension.
Blue Bird Corporation is now managed as two totally separate divisions. One division includes the school bus-building side, and the other is the Coachworks division. The Coachworks operation includes designing and building the Wanderlodge LXi and M380 luxury motor coaches, as well as commercial buses and transit units.
Blue Bird manufactures about 12,000 school buses each year; on the commercial and luxury coach side, it produces 300 units a year. In 2004 the company’s gross sales were approximately $600 million.
On the luxury coach and commercial transportation side, 250 salaried and hourly people are employed. The Coachworks division includes 213,755 square feet of indoor floor space “” plus, as all Blue Bird coach owners know, the Bird’s Nest, a first-rate campground located at the factory.
At the height of their popularity in the early 1980s, Blue Bird Wanderlodge motorhomes were built at an average rate of 100 per year. For fiscal year 2005, 50 were planned to be built. For 2006, the projected production number is 50. And that’s really where this story begins.
Under new ownership, new management talent, and recently hired technicians “” many of whom have worked in the custom coach industry “” the philosophy now is to build and return the Wanderlodge to the pre-eminent position it held. Blue Bird is proactive in recruiting the type and mix of individuals with the necessary talent and experience to make this happen.
But that is only one aspect of the new Blue Bird Coachworks. Recently the commercial bus and transit side of the business was relocated from the school bus facility to the Coachworks side, and its production line is now situated alongside the luxury coach production line. This was a significant decision, not only in terms of the logistics required to make such a shift, but in recognizing that by doing so, the luxury coach division can now take full advantage of the synergies that exist between the two. The sharing of technologies, plus the fact that the highly skilled labor pool can be instantly shifted from one production line to the other, creates greater efficiency.
The Blue Bird Wanderlodge is built in two different luxury models. The smaller M380 is 38 feet long and is priced at $486,879 (manufacturer’s suggested retail price, without options). With the coach fully equipped, the suggested retail price is $510,000. Standard equipment on the M380 includes a single living area slideout, with a total of two slideouts available. The M380 is targeted toward people who want to downsize from a 45-foot coach or who want the Blue Bird name and everything it represents on a slightly smaller motorhome.
The 450 LXi is the company’s flagship motor coach; measuring 43 feet 9 inches long, its base suggested retail price is $790,000. Fully appointed, the LXi carries a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of approximately $840,000. The 450 LXi is offered with up to three slideouts (the most popular floor plan typically features three).
I asked Blue Bird management whether four slideouts would appear in the 450 LXi in the future and was told that when the market dictates building a quad slideout, the engineering and production talent are ready.
Blue Bird elects to design, develop, and build many of the systems and mechanisms that are installed on its coaches. These include the slideout mechanisms used on the M380 and 450 LXi, as well as the hydronic heating system (a small diesel-fired, closed-loop boiler that heats and then delivers heated fluid to heating zones through the coaches). The hydronic system features a separate closed loop for each heater in a heating zone, a configuration that maximizes heating efficiencies.
Blue Bird also builds auxiliary generator housings that address the issues of generator noise and vibration. All of the interior woodwork, cabinetry, and solid-surface fixtures (countertops, lavatory, shower, etc.) are created in-house as well. Blue Bird has its own paint shop (five booths) where all of its full-body custom paint and graphics are completed.
Perhaps most importantly, Wanderlodge coaches are built on the Blue Bird chassis with the company’s steel cage construction and a stainless-steel exterior. Blue Birds are renowned as the steel coaches built to last.
The Coachworks part of the company is focused clearly on the future. A stepping-stone between top-end $600,000 production coaches and the motorhomes offered by custom bus converters exists. Blue Bird coaches fill that niche, and with their steel chassis and stainless-steel structure and exterior skin, they offer a significant alternative to coaches built on bus shells.
After visiting the Blue Bird Coachworks facility and talking with company representatives, I decided that the company is taking all of the actions necessary to grow its luxury coach division. For almost a half-century, the name “Blue Bird” has had its own equity, and it’s the intention of the team that now leads the company to continue in that same tradition.