For more than 100 years, Thomas Built Buses has thrived in North Carolina, and what began as a street car builder is now America’s largest school bus manufacturer churning out 16,000 buses a year in High Point—thanks to generations of workers steeped in manufacturing.

“Thomas Built school buses carry the world’s most precious cargo so everybody here takes great pride in what we do,” said Caley Edgerly, former president and CEO. “Our growth has come through expansions in our capacity, our market share, and the overall size of the school bus market—but our success really comes from a culture of quality ingrained in North Carolina workers.”

In the six years since Edgerly arrived, Thomas Built has nearly doubled its production capacity, increased revenue an average of 12 percent a year, and grown its workforce by more than 60 percent—employing nearly 2,000 people in 2017. Edgerly cites several factors for that growth:

  • Workforce. Generations of North Carolina workers skilled in manufacturing have driven its production and seamlessly adapted to evolving methods.
  • Location. The state’s central location means easy access to customers “from Maine to Miami,” and workers can choose to make their home in High Point, nearby Winston-Salem, or in Greensboro.
  • Ingenuity. As a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America, which also has significant operations elsewhere in North Carolina, Thomas Built benefits from the heavy-duty truck maker’s advanced technology, manufacturing systems and engineering expertise.
  • Partnerships. A network of dealers, nearby suppliers and North Carolina’s business-friendly environment give Thomas Built a competitive edge.

“High Point is the manufacturing heartbeat of a manufacturing state,” says Loren Hill, president of the High Point Economic Development Corporation in Guilford County, which has led North Carolina in the number of people employed in manufacturing, and ranked among the top five counties in the Southeast.

Thomas Built is one of nearly 300 automotive manufacturing companies in North Carolina, an industry that employs more than 26,000 people and has grown by more than 25 percent in the past five years.

“Thomas Built’s extraordinary success and longevity is the result of generation after generation of families with manufacturing in their blood going to work for this company that offers good opportunities and consistently gives back to the community,” states Hill.

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Incentive to Grow

New companies tend to get the big headlines, but most new jobs come from companies like Thomas Built that are expanding. And North Carolina values them both.

- Loren Hill, president of the High Point Economic Development Corporation

North Carolina’s economic development strategy focuses as much on helping existing companies grow as it does on recruiting new businesses, says Hill, who twice assisted Thomas Built in securing performance-based incentives to support their expansions.

In 2004, Thomas Built invested $115 million to build a second manufacturing plant three miles from its original plant, which together manufacture four models of school buses sold throughout North America. A decade later, in 2014, the company announced a $12 million equipment upgrade and the addition of 250 workers, which increased production capacity by 20 percent.

Since then, Thomas Built added—then expanded—a second shift, hiring another 300 people in jobs including fabrication, assembly, machine operation, robotics, inspections and in skilled trades.

“New companies tend to get the big headlines, but most new jobs come from companies like Thomas Built that are expanding,” says Hill. “And North Carolina values them both.”

Strength in Partnerships

Recruiting employees here is easy. We are recognized as a great place to work and people want to live in North Carolina because of its great quality of life.

- Caley Edgerly, Thomas Built Buses former president and CEO

There is other collaboration, too: Thomas Built suppliers of bus seats, insulation and flooring have taken root around High Point. Job applicants are screened through the local NCWorks Career Center. And company team leaders get 40 hours of leadership training at Guilford Technical Community College, to elevate operations and instill Daimler strategies and values.

New hires arrive with skills: To get a job, applicants must demonstrate proficiency operating a drill, installing a window and wiring a tail light. But since Thomas Built offers more than 25,000 options on its school buses, the company conducts its own training, too. Veteran employees teach newcomers, and team leaders are trained to act in a broader leadership role, allowing supervisors to focus on overall operational improvements.

“Recruiting employees here is easy,” says Edgerly, who moved from Daimler’s Detroit Diesel operation to High Point in 2012. “We are recognized as a great place to work and people want to live in North Carolina because of its great quality of life.”

What separates Thomas Built, he says, is the ownership employees take in the product.

“You see our school buses everywhere, and you see the little faces they are carrying. Our veteran workers recognize it’s their responsibility to pass on what they’ve learned, and our newer employees recognize the standards to meet. So there’s a level of consistency and a family atmosphere that really has continued for 100 years.”

For more information on this leading manufacturer, visit the Thomas Built Buses website.

Automotive companies thrive in North Carolina. Both industry giants and smaller, niche manufacturers have enjoyed significant growth in the state. North Carolina offers an array of assets—from skilled workers to supplier networks to available megasites—to help automotive companies locate to and grow in North Carolina.