Collins Industries, Inc.
Collins Industries, Inc.
Sales: $196.39 million (1999)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: COLL
NAIC: 336211 Motor Vehicle Body Manufacturing; 335112 Light Truck and Utility Vehicle Manufacturing; 333924 Industrial Truck, Tractor, Trailer, and Stacker Machinery Manufacturing
Collins Industries, Inc. is a leading manufacturer of specialty vehicles, building most of its products to customer specifications. As a pioneer in the development of small school buses, Collins Industries controls approximately 50 percent of the “Type A,” small school bus market in the United States. The company’s school bus manufacturing operations are conducted through two wholly owned subsidiaries, Collins Bus Corporation and Mid Bus, Inc. A subsidiary of Collins Bus Corporation named World Trans, Inc. sells a line of small- to medium-sized commercial buses, which are used for transit, charter, airport, and shuttle applications. Collins Industries is also the largest ambulance manufacturer in the United States, manufacturing and selling such vehicles through a subsidiary named Wheeled Coach Industries, Inc. The company’s Capacity of Texas, Inc. subsidiary ranks as the second largest terminal truck manufacturer in the country, selling vehicles and equipment used to transport semi-trailers from one point to another. Collins Industries operates seven manufacturing and distribution facilities located in Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Kansas. The company is led by the founder’s son, Donald L. Collins, Jr.
Collins Industries was formed to meet a need no other company had attempted to address. The company and its signal product were the inspiration of Don L. Collins, who experienced his epiphanic moment during the 1960s when he was working as a distributor for a Kansas school bus dealer. Collins’s revelation was sparked by the sweeping consolidation of the area’s school districts, as the number of schools serving Kansas City’s outlying regions was reduced by folding one into another. The concentration of schools made for considerably longer school bus routes, forcing 65-passenger buses on long treks to pick up and transport a handful of rurally based school children. To Collins, the sight of mostly empty, full-sized school buses traveling great distances was grossly inefficient. What was needed, he thought, were smaller buses better suited for transporting small groups of children. His vision soon led to the creation of the first under 10,000 Gross Vehicle Weight school bus.
Collins took initiative and fashioned a prototype school bus by converting a cargo van. He installed bus seats, special lights, a reticulating arm for the bus’s stop sign, and other required equipment. The result was a school bus designed to carry between 16 and 20 passengers, tailored for the special needs of transporting small groups of children efficiently. Kansas school districts soon placed orders for Collins’s modified cargo vans, creating a grounds well of interest that spread to other states. Convinced he had struck upon a marketable product, Collins incorporated his company in 1971 and began manufacturing small school buses in earnest.
The formal creation of Collins’s company also marked its move to Hutchinson, Kansas. Collins needed a manufacturing facility capable of supporting his growing business, and he found one in Hutchinson when a suitable space became available after the closure of a motorhome plant. By the time Collins had settled into Hutchinson, he had already diversified his business by modifying cargo vans into ambulances, adding another facet to his specialty vehicle business that in the years to come would develop into a mainstay business for Collins Industries.
Supported by orders for school buses and ambulances, Collins gained his footing in Hutchinson during the early 1970s, establishing a business foundation that was solidified quickly by the announcement of new regulatory requirements. In the mid-1970s, the federal government ordered school districts to provide transportation for disabled children. The edict created a new market for specialty vehicle manufacturers, and Collins was quick to join the fray. His company built one of the first wheelchair lifts used by small school buses, cementing his reputation in the industry niche. Buoyed by the increasing demand for specially tailored transportation vehicles, Collins Industries registered encouraging growth during the latter half of the 1970s. Then, in 1979, disaster struck the company, threatening to eradicate the success of the previous decade.
In April 1979, the company’s 60,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Hutchinson burned to the ground. Collins’s company was crippled by the loss. Collins entertained only one response to the devastation that had beset his promising company. He decided to rebuild, and he enlisted the aid of his son, Donald L. Collins, Jr., to help him restore the company. Collins had worked for his father’s company as a teenager. After attending college, Collins was hired by Arthur Anderson & Co., a job he gave up when he joined his father in Hutchinson in 1980. Collins was in his late 20s when he became a permanent employee of his father’s company.
Public Offering of Stock in 1983 Spurs Expansion
With the help of $3.5 million in industrial revenue bonds issued through the city of Hutchinson, the Collins family was back in business. Having literally risen from the ashes, the company emerged from the 1979 fire exhibiting far more ambition than had characterized its first decade of existence. By 1983, the company had fully recovered, confident enough to offer investors a stake in its operations and its future through an initial public offering (IPO) of stock. With the proceeds raised from the IPO, Collins Industries gained the resources to launch an aggressive expansion program. The 1980s proved to be the company’s defining decade, delivering the growth that landed the company on the national stage.
Following the 1983 IPO, Collins Industries completed two significant acquisitions that greatly increased its stature within the specialty vehicle industry. In 1984, the company acquired Capacity of Texas, Inc., a company that coincidentally was founded in 1971, the same year of Collins Industries’ official formation, by a family named Collins, who were not related to the Collins family heading Collins Industries. The Capacity of Texas acquisition steered Collins Industries into a new segment of the specialty vehicle industry, providing entry into the market for terminal tractors. Capacity of Texas vehicles were used to move semi-trailer equipment through a hydraulically activated fifth wheel, a piece of equipment that Capacity of Texas sold under the “Trailer Jockey” brand. Based in Longview, Texas, Capacity of Texas added a new dimension to Collins Industries’ operations, while the company’s next acquisition substantially strengthened an existing business. In 1985, Collins Industries acquired Wheeled Coach Industries, Inc., a purchase that immediately made the company the largest manufacturer of ambulances in the world.
With the addition of the 1984 and 1985 acquisitions, Collins Industries recorded prolific growth during the 1980s. Between 1971 and 1983, annual sales had grown to $10 million, a respectable, albeit modest, revenue volume that swelled exponentially following the company’s IPO. By the end of the 1980s, Collins Industries was collecting more than $100 million in sales a year, having evolved from a regional force into a national contender. By the early 1990s, the company’s sales total had reached $140 million, rising energetically despite a national economic recession. But there was little to celebrate in Hutchinson during the early years of the decade. The first half of the 1990s was marked by another disastrous event, but unlike the 1979 fire, the problems of the 1990s were entirely of the company’s own making.
As reported in the November 11, 1994 issue of the Orlando Business Journal, scandal rocked Collins Industries in 1993 and 1994. The company’s difficulties stemmed from an overstatement of profits in its 1992 financial statements, the same year it recorded $140 million in sales. Unreported expenses at the company’s Wheeled Coach subsidiary had inflated profits, engulfing Collins Industries in controversy. In March 1993, five days after the company announced it would have to revise its 1992 fiscal statements, Chief Financial Officer Joseph Hebb resigned. But Hebb’s departure did not resolve the matter. In November 1994, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) leveled a civil suit and administrative action against Collins Industries. Collins Industries settled the lawsuit without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, but the company incurred more than $3 million in costs associated with the investigation.
Despite the setback, the company’s difficulties with the SEC did not cause any long-term damage. Company officials emerged from the debacle, as they had following the 1979 fire, confident that future growth would lessen the sting of earlier problems. Between 1992 and 1996, Collins Industries focused on reducing its debt, while revenues climbed methodically upward, eclipsing $150 million during the company’s 25th anniversary year. After getting its financial health in order, the company began preparing for another expansion period, intent on maintaining its leadership in its markets. The growth achieved during the late 1990s came through the expansion of production capacity and through acquisitions, the mode of expansion that had ignited the company’s growth during the 1980s.
Every city, town, village, and hamlet today is represented with the products that were innovated and manufactured by Collins Industries.
Late 1990s Expansion
The beginning of Collins Industries’ expansion program was marked by a change in leadership. In 1998, Donald Collins, Jr. was named chief executive officer, replacing his father, who retained the title of chairman. Collins took charge of the company at a time when sales were flat and profits were on the decline, spurring his desire to implement a strategic plan to promote growth. Considering that Collins Industries maintained a leading position in mature markets, stagnant financial figures did not cause undue concern at company headquarters. A large percentage of the company’s sales depended on the demand for replacement vehicles, lending a certain cyclically to the company’s fortunes. Company officials were optimistic, however, that market conditions would swing in a positive direction. The sincerity of their optimism was demonstrated in late 1998, as the company completed several bold moves.
In the fall of 1998, Collins Industries completed a $1.1 million, 90,000-square-foot addition to its manufacturing facility in Hutchinson, substantially expanding the existing 160,000-square-foot plant. Further plant expansion was under way in Orlando, where the company was constructing a 100,000-square-foot plant that was scheduled to open in January 1999. The addition to the plant in Hutchinson, site of Collins Bus Corp.’s school bus manufacturing, and the Orlando facility, which was geared for manufacturing ambulances during the fall and winter and manufacturing school buses during the spring and summer, testified to the sanguine outlook for the company. “The primary reason for these changes was to accommodate more volume,” Collins explained in a December 1998 press release, “especially with large contracts with stringent delivery deadlines.”
Amid the expansion in Hutchinson and Orlando, Collins rounded out his first year as chief executive officer by completing a move that significantly bolstered the company’s position in its original business. In November 1998, Collins Industries signed a definitive agreement to acquire Mid Bus Inc., a Bluffton, Ohio-based manufacturer of Type A school buses. The acquisition, completed in December 1998, widened Collins Industries’ lead over all rivals, giving the company an estimated 50 percent share of the domestic market.
As Collins Industries prepared for the 21st century, growth forecasts fueled confidence at company headquarters. School Transportation News, an industry publication, projected the sale of small buses would increase by 25,000 to 30,000 between 1999 and 2004. Collins was intent on positioning his company to capture the bulk of the new sales orders expected to materialize. “We will be expanding our employment force very quickly,” he declared to Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News on March 2, 1999, “because we’ve got a lot of school buses to build.” Growth was expected to come from increased regulation on the use of vehicles that did not comply with federal standards governing the transportation of school children. Industry experts projected that churches, day care centers, nonprofit agencies, and other organizations would be prompted by heightened awareness of safety issues to begin replacing vans with small school buses. One industry observer, J. Curtis Brewer, expected Collins Industries to be the company to benefit from such demand, offering a glowing appraisal of the company and its prospects for the future. “It’s a company that has lots of ideas,” Brewer noted in a March 2, 1999 interview with Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, “and has the courage to spend the money to bring it to fruition.”
Capacity of Texas Inc.; Collins Bus Corporation; Wheeled Coach Industries Inc.; Mid Bus Corporation; World Trans, Inc.
Federal Signal Corporation; Blue Bird Corporation; Thor Industries, Inc.
- Don Collins’ entrepreneurial efforts lead to the incorporation of Collins Industries.
- The company’s manufacturing facility is swept away by fire, forcing the Collins family to start anew.
- With its comeback complete, Collins Industries completes its initial public offering of stock.
- The acquisition of Capacity of Texas, Inc. marks the company’s entry into the terminal tractor market.
- Ambulance manufacturing operations become the largest in the world after the purchase of Wheeled Coach Industries, Inc.
- Misreported earnings touch off investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
- Founder’s son, Donald Collins, Jr., is named chief executive officer.
- Company acquires Mid Bus, Inc., bolstering its Type A school bus operations.
Aim, Rick, “Hutchinson, Kan.-Based Bus Maker Reports Rise in Earnings, Orders,” Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, March 1, 1999.
Beall, Pat, “Collins Execs Resolve SEC Investigation,” Orlando Business Journal, November 11, 1994, p. 1.
——, “Collins in Driver’s Seat Now at Wheeled Coach,” Orlando Business Journal, February 10, 1995, p. 1.
“Collins Industries Inc.,” Kansas City Business Journal, February 19, 1993, p. 33.
Martell, Lillian Zier, “Kansas-Based Collins Industries Serves Strong Niche of Small-Bus Buyers,” Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, March 2, 1999.
—Jeffrey L. Covell