DeVivo Leads DATTCO, America’s Motor Coach Industry, Through Pandemic Challenges
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the coach industry.
With more people working from home, school closures, declining tourism and infection risks posed by shared modes of transport, companies like New Britain-based DATTCO Inc., one of the most major private coach operators in the country, have fought for survival.
“There have been sleepless nights,” said Don DeVivo, president of DATTCO, which employs about 1,850 people.
DATTCO not only offers charter trips, scheduled shuttle stops and other types of bus trips, but also serves 29 school districts in Connecticut and Rhode Island, operating 1,400 school buses to transport more than 110,000 students each day. school, he said.
Business halted for nearly six months after the state entered a pandemic-induced lockdown in March 2020. To stay afloat, DeVivo furloughed or laid off staff, including drivers, reduced d other costs and negotiated with banks to defer loan repayments.
“It was a balancing act,” he said. “We tried to keep people employed as much as we could.”
Since then, DATTCO has been in recovery mode, said DeVivo, the top executive since 1999 when his father Louis, an original founder, retired.
Annual revenue in 2020 was down 40% from the $200 million the company earned the previous year, he said. In 2021, DATTCO saw a rebound with the return of schools to in-person learning and increased demand for coach services from student and college sports groups, tour operators and other event sponsors. .
But the omicron variant was a new threat. As more countries have issued lockdowns and travel restrictions, DATTCO has secured cancellations of bookings from international tour operators.
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The pandemic has also exacerbated the shortage of school drivers, a longstanding national problem.
Since the start of the pandemic, DATTCO has lost dozens of drivers opting for early retirement or seeking more stable or better paid work. Other drivers left for fear of the risk of COVID or because they refused to be vaccinated.
The state requires school bus drivers hired after September 26, 2021 to be vaccinated against COVID-19; drivers employed before this date must be vaccinated or tested weekly.
“Staffing is the most significant issue facing our company and our industry right now,” DeVivo said.
DATTCO is working to fill more than 100 bus driver positions across the region and has advertised job openings on its Facebook page and website; starting pay is $19 an hour in most central Connecticut locations.
It can take up to four months for new drivers to train and obtain a business license, DeVivo said, causing a delay in filling seats with new recruits. The company is offering experienced, licensed bus drivers a $3,000 signing bonus in select locations with the most acute shortages; wage increases have been put in place to retain employees, some of whom have worked at the company for decades, he said.
Federal grant money has helped DATTCO cover its payroll, thanks to a grassroots campaign launched last year by the motor coach industry to defend emergency federal aid after the sector was neglected in the first $2 trillion COVID bailout package passed by Congress in March 2020.
As president of the American Bus Association (ABA), DeVivo, along with his son Kyle DeVivo, vice president of DATTCO, actively lobbied lawmakers from other members of the industry — collaborative efforts that have borne fruit.
The CERTS (Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services) Act was included in the second $900 billion COVID relief package passed in December 2020 and allocated $2 billion directly to coach operators, school bus companies and operators passenger ships, requiring 60% of any grant or loan received to go towards payroll.
“When the act went into effect, it was a game-changer and helped us get back on our feet faster,” DeVivo said, though DATTCO didn’t receive any grants until fall 2021.
This mismatch has been detrimental to the industry as a whole. The ABA estimates that 25% of the 3,000 bus companies in the United States have closed since the start of the pandemic.
DATTCO has weathered past economic downturns, tracing its roots to DeVivo’s Uncle Ed and Father Louis. The two brothers drove school buses part-time in the 1940s to supplement the income of their family farm, started by their father, an Italian immigrant also named Louis.
The company that would become DATTCO dates back to 1949, and by the early 1960s grew into a local transit and school bus operator.
Over the next six decades, the company expanded into more school districts and motor coach services, purchasing new vehicles and branching out into new lines of business.
Today, these include training programs for commercial drivers and mechanics, fleet repair services, dealerships for Thermo King, which sells and services refrigeration for trucks and buses, a property management subsidiary and a wholesale distributor of tools.
DeVivo, a graduate of the University of Hartford, also holds a master’s degree in public administration and a law degree from the University of Connecticut. After practicing law for a few years, he found the coach industry in his blood and returned to the family business. To this day, he still holds a commercial driver’s license, first obtained at age 18.
Married to college sweetheart Patricia for 32 years, DeVivo has sons, Kyle and Kevin, also at DATTCO, who plan to keep the family business going for the third generation.
Outside of work and family, DeVivo’s other passion is sports. He is a huge New York Yankees and New York Giants fan, follows hockey and college football, and applies his sports knowledge to running a business.
“In business, you always try to make the right decision, but you can’t be afraid to take a risk,” he said. “It’s part of the game.”