Cardinal Coach fills unique maintenance niche
Parts and repair business for older coaches is booming for Carolina Bus and Motorcoach
By Glenn Swain
Duplin County in eastern North Carolina is home of Cardinal Coach, the company that industry veteran James Harris has owned and operated motorcoaches in the Warsaw area since the 1990. His brother Mel brings 50 years of working on buses to the family business, and together they established Carolina Bus and Motorcoach Parts as a separate division.
While operating Cardinal Coach as a traditional motorcoach charter tour company for 12 years, Harris, who serves as company president, says he has always dabbled in parts and maintenance. In fact, he and his brother ran a bus repair facility in Virginia before shutting it down and moving to North Carolina to start the charter business.
Cardinal Coach has operated with as many as 10 motorcoaches in its charter fleet, conducting tours to such destinations as New York, Washington, D.C., Pigeon Forge, and Orlando.
However, as the dramatic economic decline over the last five years began to take its toll on the charter business, Harris says he found it necessary to cut the fleet back to two MCI and two Van Hool coaches. That is when the dabbling in bus parts suddenly turned into a major part of the business. He says in adjusting to the sharp decline in charters and tours, Carolina Bus and Parts has become a growing part of the operation.
“We’re stepping up the repair business now,” says Harris. “The fewer buses we have of our own on the road the more time we have to work on customer’s buses. There seems to be a trend now toward people repairing their old buses because of the economy and tighter financing. I have a number of one-, two- and three-bus operators I work with in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.”
Harris says he has been able to build the inventory for the parts business without purchasing in bulk from manufacturers and vendors. Instead, he purchases used parts and salvaged vehicles strictly for their parts and components. He also buys parts from other charter and tour companies that have upgraded to newer coaches and have parts sitting shelves they will never use.
While Harris is at a loss as to the exact number of individual parts in the inventory, he says the majority of parts he has fit coaches from the 1970s to the 1990s. He has a surplus of older inventory for MCI J- and E-Models and Prevost H-345s.
“We probably have some 4104 parts for 1950s model coaches alone,” he says.
He categorizes each part and stores it in plastic bins or salvages a particular part from an older bus. If a motorcoach owner needs parts for most any bus model from the 1970s and later, Harris says chances are good he has it in stock.
Word-of-mouth referrals keep Harris and his brother busy with bus repairs and getting the correct parts to those in need. The only advertising he does is local, placing an occasional ad in a tour guide or at the local high school.
A normal day finds Harris dealing with everyone from OEMs to small bus operators who have broken down on the road while transporting musicians and church groups to concerts and events.
“The key to getting the person the parts is to find out what they have and what they need,” Harris says. “I spend a great amount of time determining what type of vehicle they have, the serial number, and what exact part goes on that vehicle. If you leave it up to that operator who is calling, they don’t know what they need. We first help diagnose the problem.”
Although Harris has the capability of going back into the charter business as the economy improves and numbers increase, he says for now he is happy with the early success of Carolina Bus and Motorcoach Parts.
“We’re not trying to compete with the manufacturers,” he says. “We’re trying to supply what they’re not supplying. I’m just trying to fill a need that cannot possibly be filled by the manufacturers, especially on the older equipment. If I’m going to do the mechanical work and maintain my customer base, naturally I’ve got to have the parts to fix those buses, which are predominantly older equipment.”
Harris enjoys a high profile in the bus industry. He is a member of North and South Carolina and Virginia motorcoach associations, a UMA and ABA member, and was chairman of the Southeastern Motorcoach Coalition.
While attending events Harris is often shaking hands and networking directly with OEM manufacturers who sell him parts for his shop.
“They know me well enough to know that I would not infringe on them and only buy up what I can sell to their customers and keep them happy,” Harris says.