Local company has front row seats

February 20, 2012
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The American Seating Co. is known for producing more bus seats each year at its plant on the northwest side of Grand Rapids than any other North American location.

In fact, the 125-year-old manufacturer offers 29 passenger seating models for the city-service bus, rail and motorcoach markets. American Seating has to maintain this wide range of products because its clients have varying needs: One size doesn’t fit all.

“We service three public transportation markets, and those markets cover a lot of geography. And quite often the customers that we serve have different needs, ranging from vandal-prone areas, to somebody who is trying to develop more of a commuter usage of their transit system, to luxury motorcoaches, to everything under the sun from one extreme to another,” said Dave McLaughlin, vice president of transportation sales at American Seating.

The drive to be responsive to those differing needs led American Seating to produce two recent award-winning models: the InSight and the Vision. Both are manufactured for the city-service bus and rail markets and offer the industry’s largest seating capacity — 20 percent larger than the nearest competitor.

The InSight line won design awards from the International Forum and from Red Design, two of the most prestigious design honors, and was cited for its style, comfort and durability. The Vision line, which is a stainless steel version of the InSight, received the Good Design Award for the same reasons.

American Seating Transportation Market Manager Gary Thompson said the company put thousands of hours of research into creating the new lines to meet the needs of its clients, who transport all demographics and body shapes. He said the seat designs have to follow a set of guidelines, and the seats have to be made to last at least 12 years, which is the minimum length of time transit providers have to keep a vehicle in service if they use federal dollars to purchases buses.

“There is a lot that has to go into it, other than the styling features. It has to withstand the rigors of its service life over that period of time,” said Thompson.

“Just like the automotive industry, these vehicles are constantly changing because of changes in structure, changes in technology and also changes in regulations, specifically emission standards. We have to monitor these continually to make sure the level of performance will outlive the vehicle,” said McLaughlin.

“A number of years ago we stepped back, basically, and gauged some outside resources to force us to take a fresh look at what customers really wanted. It was a very, very healthy exercise that, in many cases, confirmed what we already knew. But more importantly, it arranged our view of priorities, such that our confidence level in providing our customers with what they really need is much higher today than what it was five years ago,” he added.

Thompson pointed out that the seat-design process also has to take into consideration the image a customer wants its riders to have of its service.

“Public transportation is really an icon of a city, and how do you make public transportation inviting and pleasing for passengers who want to leave their cars at home. So our seats are designed for style, as well as durability and comfort,” he said.

The company’s transportation division regularly accounts for more than half of the firm’s annual sales with, as would be expected, the city-service bus seating being the biggest selling line. But just like other industries, the public-transit market often goes through depressed cycles that can drag sales down.

McLaughlin said those cycles are closely tied to the availability of federal, state and local funding for transit, and over the last few years that funding has been cut, so American Seating’s customers haven’t been placing as many orders as they did in the past. But over the long run, he said the use of public transit has increased, and so has the company’s sales.

Thompson said that nationwide, transit ridership is more than 10 billion passenger trips annually. So the demand for public transit has gone up as gasoline prices have risen.

“People are really looking at alternate modes of transportation that can be more cost effective than using their personal auto,” said Thompson.

But while ridership is trending upward around the country, McLaughlin said transit authorities are being squeezed because of funding issues. “They’re downsizing their fleets or increasing their fare structure. It’s a very difficult period right now, all of which is linked to the economy,” he said

“Quite honestly the buying pattern of our customers for the last couple of years has been tough on public transit, primarily because of a lack of local funding.”

Despite the recent downturn, McLaughlin is optimistic about the firm’s future in the city bus market.

“We’re very bullish about what the future will bring. We think the market has stabilized this year after two or three years of decline,” he said. “2013 and beyond look very good. The aging vehicles are going to have to be replaced, and that bodes well for component suppliers who provide materials for those vehicles.”

McLaughlin also sees a bright future for American Seating’s motorcoach line, the private side of the company’s seating business. “Motorcoach is equally attractive. Motorcoach has been depressed for several years now, again primarily because of the economy,” he said. “I think the market will recover and will bode well for us.”

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