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A milk truck to a school bus

Kobussen Buses celebrates 86 years of business

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October 17, 2023

LITTLE CHUTE – Celebrating 86 years in business can be described as quite the accomplishment.

Celebrating 86 years in a business your family started and still carries on today, is even more rewarding.

That’s the case for Kobussen Buses Ltd., which is celebrating more than eight decades of providing transportation to students in the community.

Though, Owner Dan Kobussen said the story behind how his grandfather started the business may not be what people expect.

“My grandfather was a talker and was always interested in what was going on in town,” he said. “He owned a farm, and he hired a (farm) hand to do most of the work. He decided to take the milk to town because then he could talk instead of work. He did that for a while, but it wasn’t enough for him.” 

Dan said his grandfather’s chatty personality eventually led to him starting his own business.

“He (started talking) to other farmers and asked them questions about how farming was going on their farms. And soon after that, he started taking their milk into town. He then started a milk truck business.”

Even then, Dan said, it wasn’t enough for his grandfather.

“On top of that, those other farmers then asked him to take their kids along with him on the milk trucks to town to go to school,” he said. 

That, Dan said, sparked another idea for his grandfather – school buses – which eventually led to a contract with the Kaukauna School District.

“The first school bus he purchased was red, white and blue,” he said. “There were no laws based on how a bus had to look like back then.”

As the business continued to grow and evolve, Dan said so did the team.

Eventually, Dan said his father took over, his aunt and uncle got involved in the business and eventually he, himself, took over. 

“My parents are still alive and still on the board, but are not active in the day to day business,” he said. 

Over the years
As with any industry, Dan said the bus/transportation industry has experienced many changes – and is still going through changes. 

In the early 1960s, he said the industry hired lots of women drivers, which “in the ’60s, that was a big deal.”

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, Dan said everything became computerized and Kobussen had its “first payroll on a floppy disk.”

“If we were talking to my brother, who’s more mechanical, he would say (the changes to the physical buses themselves) were interesting for him,” Dan said. “He came into the business at the tail end (where) all of the school buses were gasoline. Shortly thereafter, in the late ’70s and ’80s, we moved to diesel buses.”

Now, he said, Kobussen Buses is “completely back to gasoline, propane and we’re now working with electric.”

Even today, Dan said Kobussen continues to perfect its craft – recently adding a mirror adjustment station in Kaukauna that helps bus drivers see all around the vehicle.

“It’s not a new technology by no means,” he said. “It’s basically dots painted on the pavement… it represents a small child when they get too close to the vehicle (and) you can’t see them. But if you park the bus in that situation, you can see all those spots (and make sure) your mirrors are adjusted appropriately to be able to see all the way around the bus.”

Over the last 86 years of business, Dan Kobussen said many things have changed in the school bus industry. Currently, he said the team is working on implementing electric school buses. Photo Courtesy of Kobussen Buses?

Bus drivers, he said, also have an app they can use to view their payroll – a big jump, Dan said, from the floppy disk days.

“A lot of people think the school bus doesn’t change at all, but the school bus continually evolves, like our cars do,” he said.

Unprecedented times
The COVID-19 pandemic, much like many other businesses, Dan said, affected Kobussen drastically.

“A lot of our contracts didn’t have anything in them that said if school stops, we don’t get paid,” he said. “It wasn’t even discussed. I felt bad about that until I found out there were national companies that had the same issue.”

Luckily, Dan said, some of the school districts Kobussen had a contract with were willing to help out – which allowed Kobussen to pay all of its drivers throughout the pandemic.

“We paid them regardless if they were working or not working,” he said. “(We wanted) to make sure we had them after COVID ended.”

Dan said the company retained most of its employees, though there’s always a shortage of bus drivers, so the company is always looking to add to its team.

From the experience, Dan said the business is working on changing its contracts so it will be protected if something similar were to happen again.

“We operate on a thin margin… (the) school bus business is interesting that way,” he said. “The school route goes every day, 180 days a year and that’s what we know… we’re always constant, we always had that business. But this was a shock into the system… but again, we’re through it now and we’re making headway back.”

Much like the school districts helped Kobussen out during the pandemic, Dan said the business in turn found ways to support its community through it as well.

“We had a couple of districts where we put WiFi units on the buses and we parked them around town so kids could get on the WiFi units,” he said. “There were other districts where we delivered a lot of lunches and meals.”

An important milestone
As Dan reflected on his family’s business celebrating 86 years, he said it is “an honor to be a part of it.” 

“This business has been around for (so) long,” he said. “(It’s) tried and true, and we keep plodding along, doing the best we can… It’s humbling to know my grandfather started it and I get to carry on in that fashion.”

To learn more about Kobussen Buses, visit their Facebook page.

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