Elite Coach: “Knowing Prevost is there for us, we can just go about our business”
In its 25-plus years, Elite Coach based in Ephrata, PA, has separated itself from industry norms through its resourceful business model. The success of the company has to do with the owners’ understanding of sound financial practices and their innovative approach to maintaining coaches over the long term. The company undertook the remarkable task to maintain and operate every coach they own for as long as possible - including two 1998 Prevost La Mirages that eventually surpassed 1.2 million miles.
Currently, Elite Coach runs 30 Prevost H3-45s with three more 2020 models on order for a January delivery.
Paul Kurtz was involved with the company in 1996, became sole owner in 1997 and began carving its niche in the Lancaster, PA area with a fleet of six coaches that came with the deal.
Kurtz enlisted his son-in-law, David Dickson, to assist him in the early going. Two years later, his son, Brian left his position with a travel company and came onboard when the fleet had reached eight (8) units.
Kurtz had been a motorhome enthusiast his entire life. He knew the Prevost brand and was impressed with the Prevost motorhome chassis. Finding the Canadian bus-builder amiable and willing to answer all questions, he purchased a Prevost demo after testing it for a week, making Elite Coach the first operator in the Lancaster County region to own a Prevost product. The transaction marked the beginning of the two organizations’ longstanding and innovative partnership.
“At the time, no one near our market ran Prevost coaches,” says Brian. “Today, we absolutely have customers because we provide Prevost coaches. When they call us, they know what will show up.”
Elite Coach describes its market as a mix of school and university charters, military transport, corporate outings and traditional motorcoach tours — nothing out of the ordinary say the owners.
Today, Paul is retired from the day-to-day operation, while Brian continues to serve as President, and David is Vice President. In their respective roles, Brian oversees the dispatch and the driver hiring and sales. With a background in general maintenance, Dickson handles everything having to with managing the fleet and maintenance and parts operations.
Buses were unfamiliar territory to Kurtz and Dickson but they came to their positions with the business credentials that allowed them to reevaluate the value of their fleet; shifting from the number of units and their equity to more accountable metrics that measure a company’s financial worth.
“Though Brian and I began as newcomers, we knew how to run a business by the books,” says Dickson. “We were able to adapt what we knew to this industry where it was needed most.”
Their game plan involved deriving the most from their capital investment by operating their coaches for as long as they were in sound operating order, which incorporated the company’s realistic view of maintenance protocol. Customary industry practice was to rotate coaches every five to seven years.
With the rising price of new motorcoaches, the owners saw refurbishment as the most sensible solution. As a result, Elite Coach was 10 years ahead of the wave of refurbishments in the wake of the 2008 recession and EGR emission mandates coming down the pike.
“The traditional business model of periodical rotating used buses for new does not work for us,” says Brian Kurtz. “We just scratch our heads at the capital costs. No matter their age, we are further ahead financially to completely recondition our older coaches and hold on to them.”
Dickson notes of the current units in the Elite Coach fleet, over half are seven years or newer. “We have really been able to grow the company because we maintain our older equipment,” he says. “Keeping our fleet as uniform as possible has always been a critical component in our brand.”
Over its 22 years, Elite Coach has acquired 32 Prevost coaches and refurbished almost 20 coaches to include new front and rear caps, rear bumper and windshields, as well as complete undercarriage treatments and new interiors.
Dickson say Prevost has never hesitated to work proactively with Elite Coach on its maintenance initiative beginning with refurbishments to its six older coaches to refresh their curb appeal, at a cost of more than $300,000.
“Prevost has understood every detail of our business model from day one,” says Kurtz. “They have shown no reservation in accommodating our unique method. This protocol may have never worked to this extent without their assistance and guidance.”
Elite Coach does not shy away from the expense, typically investing $40,000 to $60,000 on each coach.
Several years ago, issues arose with an extremely problematic engine in a 2008 Prevost H3-41, which resulted in a constant string breakdowns out on the road due to the demands for engine manufacturers to meet the new EPA emission standards. Calling it an engineer’s worst nightmare, Dickson chose to replace it with a Volvo D13 engine and felt comfortable in asking Prevost for help.
“Prevost’s parts people, engineers and service technicians simply dug into to solving our problem together,” says Dickson. “At one point in the process, Prevost needed one obsolete part for the alternator brackets and went to the trouble of calling and asking the original vendor to recast another for this sole engine install.”
Though the process was expensive, he says the transplant solved a plethora of issues unrelated to standard preventive maintenance.
“This is just the way we operate,” says Dickson. “For example, when we knew we would sell several of our 1998 models at the end of the year, we went ahead and completely refurbished the interiors for a third time with new foam and webbing for all the seats as well as covers.”
The company makes it clear it will never hold off refurbishing a coach until they are about to sell or trade it. Company policy is to always do whatever is necessary while the vehicle is in service. The reasoning is simple, every coach must perform at company standards. Additionally, the operators taking delivery of coaches coming from Elite Coach are very aware of their added value and appreciate the company’s effort.
“By this time, we accept nothing less,” says Brian. “The more uniform we keep our fleet, each runs better and lasts longer, particularly our much older units, it improves our customer service, strengthens our brand and allows our company to continually grow.”
Elite Coach designates a period when business is slow to send coaches to the body shop to repair and refurbish prior to the busy season.
The process begins with the flooring, steps and grab rails in the entry stairwell – the first area customers see as they board – and moves through the coach replacing, refitting and making upgrades to the technology, which includes LED and Xenon lights all around.
“Because we travel so much in the Northeast, corrosion is our greatest challenge by far,” says Dickson. “The longer we continue to minimize corrosion on the undersides, the longer we can keep our coaches.”
Elite Coach mechanics and technicians receive regular Prevost Factory Training, and routinely call for help with the more advanced systems and components they are experiencing for the first time – particularly Prevost products less than five years old.
The company is currently in discussions on retrofitting the proprietary Prevost Electric Fan System in all the company’s older coaches. Meantime there is this other pressing issue:
“Potential customers will call and ask specifically if our coaches have cupholders,” says Elite Coach Marketing Director, Josie Freeman. “Never mind the model year, if every passenger has a place for their Big Gulp, we’re good.”
Inside Elite Coach
Many Elite Coach employees are seasoned veterans held in high regard and valued for their long term contributions.
The company’s carefully considered set of posted core values Character, Service, Excellence and Teamwork encourages the best from its people and guides the mission of the business. Framed reminders on desks and decals applied to the coaches keep the company basic tenets out front for all to grasp.
Character – Value every person; demonstrate dignity and respect. Take responsibility and be accountable.
Service – Give the best of one’s time and talent; work toward mutually beneficial solutions.
Excellence – Demonstrate quality in all aspects of the work; set high performance goals and standards.
Teamwork – Engage with others to solve problems find solutions; respect the views of others.
According to Elite Coach, its principles speak to a way of being beyond accommodating customer needs, operating safely and turning a profit. Kurtz and Dickson also believe these values account in many ways for their enduring partnership with Prevost.
“Prevost has always been it for the long haul,” says Dickson. “Once the company decides on something, they go about it the right way. We share a similar culture and tend to approach our business in the same way. Knowing Prevost is there for us, we can just go about our business.”