JOHNSTOWN - After nearly 40 years Don Brown Bus Sales Inc. has built itself from a small facility to a transportation powerhouse while marketing school, commercial, transit and luxury buses throughout the Northeast and internationally.
The business, located in a remote area on County Road 107, has been a Fulton County mainstay since 1975, and it has grown fervently in the past 25 years since Mark Sebast took over in 1987 with more than 1,000 buses now sold annually.
Sebast wasn't a total stranger to the Brown family when he took over.
Josh Brandon, a chassis technician at Don Brown Bus Sales in Johnstown, is shown through a vehicle’s front mirror working under the hood of a school bus in the shop on County Road 107 on Friday.
(The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan)
Both he and Don Brown were parts managers at Capital Region dealerships in the 1970s and knew each other.
"We were fairly competitive," Sebast said. "So we used to compare notes to see who was doing better when they were selling. It was fun."
When Brown suddenly passed away after running the bus business for 12 years, his wife asked Sebast if he would take over.
Sebast talked with his wife, and they decided to honor the request.
"We started in 1987 with five people, and all we did was build on the foundation that was already there," Sebast said. "Don had a great customer base, and we just kept working with that particular customer base. By referrals and word of mouth, we kept finding more opportunities. Word of mouth has been our best advocate in the marketplace."
He said if Brown could see the business today, he would be impressed.
In the business's early years there would have been a dozen or so vehicles on the lot at any given time - most sold before they reached the lot.
Now the lot boasts 300 to 400 buses in the late spring and early summer months when school bus sales are closing.
The business sells new school buses solely to New York state schools including the Gloversville Enlarged School District. Used school buses are sold throughout the Northeast.
The business operates out of the County Road 107 office complex. It sells pre-owned vehicles all over the United States (35 to 40 percent), Canada (5 to 10 percent), Mexico (25 to 30 percent) and overseas to Africa, Europe and Russia.
Sebast's son Eric said they prefer the single location in Fulton County.
"We feel good having it so there's a cohesion together," Eric said. "So we stay at one location rather than spreading it over the Northeast part of the country."
The company sells new transit buses in New York and throughout the New England region, and new luxury buses - which the company has only gotten into in the past three to four years - from Ohio to Virginia and everything northeast of that.
And 90 percent of the plethora of school buses on the lot are sold in a three-month period, Eric said. He explained that the only time schools switch buses in the middle of the year is if school officials can't justify putting more money into fixing one of their current buses, or if they have added more students during the school year.
"They don't want to try and replace something in the middle of the year because they're using them every day - Monday through Friday," Eric said. "Typically, people run buses until they can't use them anymore or they're too expensive to justify fixing anymore."
The recent financial issues that have been hindering schools also have been a factor in the company's sales.
Mark said the company has had to adjust to these financial problems, but it hasn't been too serious for the company.
Eric noted buying a car and a bus are two completely different processes.
"People buy cars when their [vehicle] is perfectly fine," he said. "There's nothing wrong with it, but it's five years old and has a little bit of rust. Or maybe it doesn't quite work as well. They go and buy a new car. In the transportation - especially school bus - world, they drive it until they can't use it anymore.
"It's not [that] they want a new flashy bus. It has affected us, but we'll see a slight dip and slight downturn in the market. And after two or three years, it [totals] the same price for them to spend every year to fix the bus [as] it does to just buy another one. They won't have to worry about the hassles. So instead of putting their money into maintenance, they're putting their money into the purchase of the bus."
Smaller buses have a life of seven to 10 years, while the larger, or full-sized buses, last 10 to 15 years.
When a district purchases a new bus from Don Brown Bus Sales, it isn't until after 15 to 18 hours of inspection, Eric said.
Workers inspect all aspects of the buses they receive from Indiana in their new five-bay garage and fix any issue they believe could potentially cause problems further down the road.
"It's almost like the factories build it, then we finish it," Eric said.
With the returned models, the company has two lifts at its complex that can lift any bus, and the workers can essentially build an entire new bus with all the parts and tools they have at their disposal.
Mark also makes sure that there are no problems when delivering the bus and has 34 part-time workers that drive the buses to their destinations and are trained to answer any questions the buyer might have.
"We use our own drivers, because then we can control and make sure that it's a professional delivery," Eric said. "And most of the drivers, besides being drivers, are trainers as well, so they are trained here in how everything works in the bus for when they make the deliver. So when they go to make the delivery, they can walk whoever is receiving the vehicle through every system in the entire bus so they know how to operate it.
"If we hired a driving service for us, we couldn't control if they're professional when they walk in - what they're wearing, how they speak with the customers. And then we couldn't control whether they know the systems in the vehicles at all. So everything that is delivered to our customer is from our own staff."
Looking back on his last 25 years, Mark said he has seen major growth in clientele, and the facility itself has expanded five or six times since 1997.
And he said he enjoyed it every step of the way.
"I had no idea. I would have never believed it. Not at all," he said. "I was in parts. That's where I was going to be. I was in the best dealership that I could find in New York state, working in parts and excited. But, it's been awesome."