Kia Motors, Blue Bird Bus Corp. Executives Steer "Georgia Manufacturing Summit" in New Directions

John Tabellione

Friday, November 20th, 2015

Executives of the Blue Bird Bus Corporation and Kia Motors addressed over 300 attendees at the inaugural “Georgia Manufacturing Summit” held recently at the Cobb Galleria Centre, calling for collaborative thinking, as well as intra-state, inter-company commerce among local manufacturers. 

Phil Horlock, CEO of Blue Bird, described how his company markets to Georgia school districts. Horlock, with initial support from Governor Nathan Deal, stated that school decision makers now recognize, not only the benefits of Blue Bird’s unique advantages, but also the opportunity to contribute nearly $85,000 toward the state GDP for each bus purchased from the Fort Valley manufacturer. The result has been an exponential increase in market share within Georgia from 23% to 65%. 

Likewise, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Administration for Kia, Randy Jackson, encouraged the audience members, their employees, family and friends, to consider buying the only car brand made in Georgia, within the context of contributing to building jobs for Georgians. Kia recently added a third shift at its West Point plant where it now employs 16,000 people. Two of the three models manufactured there were just awarded International Car of the Year and International SUV of the Year by Road and Travel Magazine.

Horlock opened his presentation by saying: “I love collaboration with other manufacturers.” He then went on to recount the 88-year history of Blue Bird as the first entrepreneurial, yellow school bus maker in the world to its present-day status as a $900 million publicly traded company. It had a 31% overall market share, up from 23% in 2010 just prior to Horlock’s appointment as CEO. The company has manufactured 500,000 buses over the course of its history.

To complement their sales strategy, Horlock strategized that the product line needed to have an “edge” over competition, so the company developed several innovations while adjusting its manufacturing efficiencies. The production of school buses calls for streamlining the number of styles, roof heights and managing an inventory of twenty-four thousand parts, while still meeting stringent specification requirements from federal, state and local governments.  

New window designs, better turning radiuses and unique propane fuel technology have paved the way to earn Blue Bird recognition in categories such as number one ratings in safety, durability and operating cost. Working exclusively with Roush Performance propane technology and collaborating with Ford on transmissions and engines have given Blue Bird a five-year lead over competition. Furthermore, the market penetration for potential propane-fueled buses has only scratched the surface, said Horlock. 

The winning culture at Blue Bird, according to Horlock, comes from the “desire to succeed.” The objective is for employees to “have some edge and tenacity” in order for them to have the “ability to be the best employees they can be.” He added, “You cannot manage a secret, but you have to address issues on the table positively.” In other words, discuss the issue, not the person, and talk about creative positive successes. Horlock also noted that the average tenure for employees at Blue Bird is 14 years; many have worked there for 20-plus years, and one employee has spent 50 years with the company. 

The Kia plant, on the other hand, has only been in production a little less than 10 years. Jackson reaffirmed, however, the benefits of developing a positive culture, such as what has matured in his operation where nearly 2 million vehicles have been produced during that span of time, at a rate of a one every 57 seconds, 1,550 a day and 370,000 projected for 2015. He noted that not one employee had ever built a car prior to being hired.  

Rather, what Kia sought from its workforce was the human element, that is, workforce availability, people skills and trainability. Since all car manufacturers have similar technologies and tools, for Kia it was a matter of being number one on the people side of the business. If they had not started from day one to establish a culture and get people to subscribe to it, claims Jackson, a few years down the road they would have realized multiple cultures had flourished, likely antithetical to their objectives. 

The result of these efforts is what management today calls “The Kia Way,” consisting of “one system, one team,” said Jackson. “People are the heart and soul of Kia,” he added. The culture is such that everyone is singing the same song of self-responsibility and understanding both the internal and external customers they are serving. “We need to educate how the people fit into the business,” said Jackson. 

The Kia culture encourages workers to think positively. The culture is: “I can, or together we can, do anything.” Thinking in terms of “challenges” versus “problems,” is the mindset at Kia. Asking the employees to ask why means they want to learn. Jackson said he urges people to find a way to motivate and move forward. “Kia is a lean, flat organization. If you can get everyone to pull together, it’s powerful,” emphasized Jackson.

The basis to everything is trust. “How we build that trust is to talk, get to know people to get continuous improvement, which is what sets us apart.”

Jackson also stated that the most difficult part of his job is communications, due to new technology and generational gaps, and how to make these issues mesh well. “Effective learning is two-way communications.” Because of these challenges, “face-to-face communications is forced into the culture,” he said.

“Success breeds success. Motivation turns into excitement. People should be happy to want to make a contribution.”

Jackson added that Kia has recently been recognized on the cover article of Consumer Reports and has received two 2015 J.D. Power Awards for initial quality. 

The afternoon session of the Summit included a panel discussion on the subject of “Manufacturing a Better Bottom Line.” Participants included Melvin Haas, Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP; Tim Howe, Smith & Howard; Archie Jones, NOWaccount; and, Ralph Pasquariello, Snellings, Walters. Matt Reed, President of, moderated the discussion. 

The “Georgia Manufacturing Summit” is a production of the Georgia Manufacturing Alliance, Jason Moss, Founder and CEO.

About John Tabellione

John Tabellione is an award-winning, professional business writer, complemented by over twenty-five years of strategic communication responsibilities as a Marketing, New Business Development and National Account Sales Executive in consumer goods and commercial industries. 

Experience with Fortune 500 companies, as well as with smaller firms and non-profits, encompassing a variety of products, including those of Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark and Stanley Works. 

John has a B.A. in English from Fairfield University and an MBA in Marketing from the University of Hartford. In addition, he has studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute at Syracuse University, and Italian language and culture at Kennesaw State University.