Vic operator's slice of paradise
Regional Victorian bus operator Ross Wise is proud of what he has achieved with Wise Way to Travel since he founded the company back in 1997
People in the bus industry are usually community-minded folk. Operators will generally help each other out when they need a hand and, when a call goes out to support a worthy cause, we come through for those in need
So it’s no surprise a brand new bus operation was born some 20 years ago during such an act of kindness.
Ross Wise has been a country school bus operator for two decades and started his regional Victorian bus operation Wise Way to Travel after being offered the purchase of a school run while on a volunteering mission with the Rotary Club of Inverloch to cyclone-proof schools in storm-hit Samoa with the previous owner Frank Bain.
"I was a good trip to Samoa, a real eye opener really," Ross explains. "We doubled the roof trusses in the school buildings and strengthened all the pillars and other associated work.
"The school we were working on was on the south coast of Samoa in a very poor area that is very prone to being struck by cyclones. We did what we could in the short time we were there anyway.
"Frank Bain and I were having a beer one night, probably around 1996, and he says, ‘Would you like to buy my school bus run?’
"My initial thought was no. Dealing with school kids didn't really sound like my cup of tea at the time.
"About a year later Frank still hadn't sold it and the people looking at buying it were stuffing him around. He had an old Bedford bus that had to be upgraded, but I didn’t think that was too much of a big deal.
"I thought about it a bit more and got to thinking that it seemed like a fairly good gig. One hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon doing the local school run, so I ended up buying it off him.
"I did my due diligence and spoke with a few other bus operators in the area and they all said it would be a good buy and that I should go for it. So that’s what I did and haven't looked back since."
One of the first things Ross did was call Inverloch Primary School to see if they wanted any charter work done, which they did.
"It's all just snowballed from there really," Ross revealed.
"When I purchased the business 20 years ago it came with the Inverloch to Wonthaggi school run and a shuttle service from Wonthaggi secondary college to two of the primary schools," Ross explains.
Having always been the community-minded, hands-on type, prior to getting into the bus business Ross was responsible for maintenance and engineering at a local house-building company.
"I also worked in a garage by myself for six years, so having that mechanical knowledge and being able to do my own repairs has come in very handy and got us out of trouble at various times over the years," Ross reveals.
A former motor mechanic by trade, race car owner and driver, the first Bedford bus Ross acquired was in pretty bad shape but in time Ross replaced it with a Volgren-Mercedes-Benz combination and picked up a few new jobs along the way. Virtually running the operation from his family home, Ross reckons he has now achieved the ideal work-life balance.
Back to school
One of the biggest schools the organisation services is Wonthaggi Secondary College, which is split into two campuses. There is the Dudley Junior Campus (for students in years 7 to 9) and McBride Senior Campus (which is attended by students in years 10 to 12).
"There’s only one private secondary school on Phillip Island called Newhaven College, so all the public school kids come up to Wonthaggi and other bus operators pick them up from Phillip Island," Ross says.
"We get an intake of about 200 new students a year at the high school into year 7, so those school runs do keep us fairly busy.
"I’ve been in the bus industry for 20 years now, and the way this area has grown is just phenomenal.
"We were taking 140 students out of Inverloch area when we first started and now we’re taking over 200."
The number of students enrolled at Mary MacKillop Catholic Regional College, Leongatha has grown hugely over the years.
"There are a lot of younger families moving out here now. Housing is obviously a lot more affordable here compared to Melbourne, and it’s a good lifestyle for the kids.
"There are quite a few people out here who commute to Melbourne for work every day, which is a two-hour drive one way.
"It’s not so much the people working in central Melbourne who are commuting, but definitely those working in the outer east, in the Dandenong area.
"A lot of the industry that used to employ a lot of people out here has gone, the coal mine closed in 1968. The major employers out here now are probably the schools, supermarkets and the hospital."
Ross enjoys doing school runs and says the children in the areas a very polite and well mannered.
"You may be having a bad day and you’ll get kids on the bus who say ‘Good morning Ross, how are things?’ and it just makes your day."
While no new school services have been added since Inverloch Primary School came on board, Ross has been growing the charter side of the business recently with great success.
"We are getting a lot of charter work with Inverloch Primary School at the moment, which is nice.
"I am also starting to get quite a lot of weekend work with sports clubs and especially Wonthaggi football club, Probus clubs and the local bowls club.
"There are some very nice and scenic places around here too, such as the Kilcunda Hills."
The small community of Kilcunda is situated on the rugged South Gippsland coastline between Phillip Island and Wonthaggi, and is a handy day trip for charter groups.
The nearby Shelley Beach is a secluded sandy beach bounded by two rocky headlands, and past the eastern headland at the main beach is the town's surf beach.
Safe, sheltered swimming and boating in the Powlett River’s shallow waters, as it approaches the ocean at the Kilcunda-Harmers Haven Coastal Reserve, is also a popular spot.
Home on the range
One of the most unique aspects of Ross’ operation is the fact that he essentially runs the business from his home in Wonthaggi.
"We moved into this new place at the end of April last year," he says.
"I’ve also got a permit to add a storage facility which will be large enough to fit four buses into. That will be good, because we do get some pretty wild storm over here in the winter and I want to keep my new bus looking like new for as long as possible."
He plans to have a new bus wash and this new storage facility up well ahead of winter this year, and is likely to be calling in a few favours with relatives to achieve this!
Driver Graham Blundell, who has been working for Ross for a number of years, says it’s a pleasure to work with him. Another long-time employee and driver Kevin McPhearson helps to keep the wheels turning.
"Kevin was my co-driver when we did the Sydney Olympics in 2000. That was a big job taking media to and from the games. It was a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation in my 14/18 Mercedes.
"The Bus Association of Victoria put out the call for Victorians bus operators who wanted to be a part of the Sydney Olympic Games, and we thought that would be a good thing for us to be a part of."
"It was a good experience," Ross says. "It was a major exercise in hindsight, but I’m very proud that we were a part of that."
Ross’s daughter Amanda Campbell also helps out from time to time.
The latest addition to the Wise Way to Travel fleet is a Scania-Volgren Endura school/charter combination that was delivered to him in June last year.
Ross specifically requested his preference of a coach-style door – in part to better keep out the strong, squally winds that coastal Gippsland is prone to experiencing.
"It has McConnell seat-belted coach seats, which the kids have said are very comfortable," Ross reveals.
"The school kids love it, and also the people I take around for charter say it’s just so much more comfortable than the previous vehicle."
The new bus has been put to good use on the primary and secondary school run from nearby Inverloch into Wonthaggi.
His other full-size bus is a 20-year-old Volgren body on a Mercedes-Benz 1418 chassis, so his new storage facility will provide more than enough room for these two and more if another bus needs to be added to the fleet in future.
While Ross admits he is "getting on in the years", he is not looking to retire anytime soon and plans to stay active in the business and within the community for as long as he is able to.
"I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being involved in the bus industry and I’ve got to know a lot of very good people. It’s really connected our family to the community even more."
Ross reckons his operation is at a good manageable size at the moment, but he does intend to continue to grow the charter side of the business over the next few years.