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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    What’s Going On: M&J Bus keeps getting people where they need to go

    Jon Hipsher, general manager of M&J Bus Inc., stands Feb. 9, 2024, by some of the school buses that line the company’s depot in Old Saybrook.

    At M&J Bus Inc. in Old Saybrook, everyone’s a driver.

    On any given day, depending on how short on drivers the company proves to be, that could include mechanics, office workers, executives and even one of the owners.

    The company, started in 1975 by Karen and Mike Beebe and one of the heavyweights in the local school transportation business, currently employs close to 600 people, 50 full time, and buses children in 28 Connecticut communities.

    But M&J still has trouble finding enough drivers for its 400 buses and 175 vans. And the business isn’t just shuttling school kids around, as M&J’s transportation services now include corporate events, weddings and other activities in the summer months.

    “It’s not just September to the middle of June any more,” Jon Hipsher, M&J’s chief operating officers, said.“It’s really a 12-months-a-year business.”

    It’s a big business, too.

    “We cover the eastern half of Connecticut, really border to border,” with a strong presence along the shoreline, Hipsher said.

    M&J is an offshoot of a company founded by Mike Beebe’s father, Jack. The elder Beebe ran a bus company called Beebe School Transportation Inc. on the other side of the state while Mike and Karen, who previously had both worked together with Jack, got their first contract with the Old Saybrook School System. Soon, the towns of Windham, Lebanon, Middletown, Coventry and Lisbon, as well as Mercy and Xavier high schools were added on.

    But the Beebes bowed out of the bus transportation business for nearly a decade starting in the mid 1980s before rejoining the fray in 1995, again as M&J Bus, after buying the former Robert E. Fellage Inc., which had a contract for the Farmington school system.

    Nearly half a century after the Beebes first started their company, the main bus depot is still in their original community of Old Saybrook, not far from the highway, and locally they serve Old Saybrook, Salem, Lyme-Old Lyme, North Stonington and Salem, among other systems.

    And now a new generation of Beebes is coming up in the business, as first son Michael John (MJ) serves as maintenance director, while younger son Jason, who is in the junkyard side of the business called M&J Auto Recycling, helps with side projects such as moving vehicles.

    Hipsher said a variety of people enjoy driving buses for M&J, with former law enforcement officers among the most skilled, along with retired military and women with school-age children. Drivers are usually between 25 and 75 years old.

    One of the bus company’s most popular drivers is Kevin Hogan, the former WFSB-TV news anchor who has a five-days-a-week route in Griswold and Lisbon.

    “We think the world of him,” Karen Beebe said. “A lot of moms like to bring their kids to the bus when he is driving.”

    Bus drivers generally have to get to the depot around 6 a.m. to get the bus ready for the first high school and middle school runs, then come again for the elementary school-age pupils. After their two- to three-hour runs, they have time off until they are back again about 1:30 p.m. for the afternoon routes, and are usually off the road by 4:15.

    Of course, there are always special late runs, athletics contests and charters that can add to the number of hours worked. Bonuses are given to drivers who are reliable and accident free.

    Of course, with a big company and a difficult job, there are sometimes unfortunate incidents. One occurred a few weeks ago when a driver with M&J was charged with risk of injury to a minor and second-degree breach of peace after state police said she forcibly moved a student from the back of the bus to the front.

    M&J declined to comment on the matter.

    Besides drivers, of course, there are many others behind the scenes making sure buses run on time, including mechanics, office workers and dispatchers. And the tentacles of M&J are spread throughout the state, with substations in places like Windham, Farmington, Stafford and North Haven, plus a former Peter Pan bus depot in Waterford. Depots used to be filled with maps and peppered with pins and strings showing all the bus routes, but now much of the routing is done through GPS.

    “The hardest part is getting good help,” Karen Beebe said.

    “We can’t take on as much as people ask us to,” added Hipsher.

    One of the latest aspects of the business in recent years has been wedding transportation, as marriages are being done in remote locations and couples are choosing to transport guests so they avoid drinking and driving. Some of the locations that use their services include Saybrook Inn & Spa, Salem Herbfarm, Water’s Edge Resort and Jonathan Edwards Winery.

    “In the last five years it really took off,” Hipsher said.

    Still, the wedding business accounts for only a small fraction of M&J’s overall business, which continues to rely on getting students to school on time.

    “We’re all looking for drivers,” Hipsher said. “It’s a really big boost for young families who need another income coming in.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To reach him, email l.howard@theday.com.

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