BY ROB SMENTEKLocated 110 miles from Chicago and 150 miles out of Indianapolis is Elkhart, Ind., a town long recognized as one of the United States’ leading manufacturing hubs. So while New York is recognized as “The Big Apple,” and Reno is known as “The Biggest Little City in the World,” Elkhart has earned its reputation as the “RV Capital of the World.” But, according to longtime resident Alex Foris, that nickname is a little deceiving. “We have a joke here in Elkhart: If it has wheels, we built it.”
And Foris knows what he’s talking about. For roughly 30 years, he’s been at the forefront of the bus manufacturing industry in the Midwest. Currently, he’s the president of SVO Group, the manufacturer of the high-end line of Embassy buses. Founded in May 2014, SVO has its origins in a source of inspiration that many successful businessmen have used as a springboard: boredom.
“I started AmeriTrans in January 1998, and we built that into a successful company,” says Foris. “When I decided to sell it to ABC Companies in July 2012, I had a non-compete clause in the agreement, so I figured I was going to retire down South, but I was restless. I started to miss my business but couldn’t do any bus-related work for three years.”
As the terms of his sales agreement were expiring, Foris sought out an old acquaintance, industry veteran Terry Minix, who now acts as SVO’s vice president of specialty vehicles, and the two began laying the groundwork of a new venture. Using Minix’s expertise in specialty vehicle building, SVO started by manufacturing non-passenger vehicles, like self-contained mobile medical units, which Foris says sharpen and repair surgical tools on-location at hospitals. It wasn’t long, however, before Foris and SVO would be able to move back “home” and re-enter the bus market.
“Eventually, I was able to move back into my old building here in Elkhart, and on August 1, 2015, I started working on buses again. I registered the name Embassy, and have it for buses, specialty vehicles, and RVs.”
Foris first moved to Elkhart in his teens and is still a proud resident of the city. While the town was known initially for the RV industry, more and more builders came to the area, including van, limousine, bus, and parts manufacturers.
“Elkhart is where it all happens,” says Foris. “I can get my fiberglass, steel, and seating all in this area. My furthest vendor is in Chicago.”
Once he re-entered the industry, Foris was determined to make Embassy a leading name in passenger buses: “We said that if we’re going to build buses, we’re going to do it totally differently.” The team next brought in Del Littrell—whose relationship with Foris extends 35 years—as vice president of engineering. Utilizing Littrell’s innovative design abilities, they set out to introduce a new means of manufacturing to the bus industry.
One thing that sets the Embassy line apart from its competitors is the weight, or lack thereof, of its buses according to Foris. He saw increasing vehicle payload as a major issue in the industry, so when he and the team were conceptualizing their approach to building, the decision was made to make a concerted effort to pull weight out of their vehicles. By using composites, Foris says they’ve been able to cut weight and increase the fuel economy of their buses.
Furthermore, Foris says that they are one of the few builders to use composite flooring on their vehicles. By not using plywood, and circumventing the use of any fasteners, it makes the floor impermeable to water, which he says guarantees it will not rot or have any rust point. Also, the composite material is sound-deadening and offers insulation.
“We also make our fiberglass parts out of vacuum-formed fiberglass,” adds Foris, “which creates a stronger part with less resin, with a lot less weight.” This process was also used in Embassy’s one-piece molded roof, for which the builder has a patent pending. With no exterior screws and an aluminum extrusion that binds the sidewall and roof together, the design promises a leak-proof vehicle.
However, developing and innovating these new processes has come at a higher cost for the SVO Group, but Foris and his team made the decision to spare no expense. “We’re not a low-cost bus manufacturer and don’t intend to be. Our customers are catering to the corporate community. Livery operators are buying our buses, as are high-dollar hotels and assisted living programs.”
We said that if we’re going to build buses, we’re going to do it totally differently." — Alex Foris, President of SVO Group
So, while the Embassy line may have a higher price tag, Foris feels that the quality they insist on will be beneficial for limousine operators down the line. “When a customer gets ready to sell one of our buses three or five years down the road, the residual dollar is higher. We believe that Embassy owners will have a better value for their used bus.”
Although the Embassy has only been in the marketplace for just over two years, its product line is available in a multitude of configurations and is continually expanding. Currently, the company builds vehicles that seat between 10 and 40 passengers, and can be designed to accommodate wheelchair users or be a traditional all-passenger unit. Their E Series minibuses—the E350 and E450—are constructed on the Ford chassis, while their latest offerings, the M Series buses, are built upon an M2 Freightliner chassis.
Since hitting the market, the Embassy buses are garnering interest in the industry, which undoubtedly has as much to do with Foris’ stellar reputation as a businessman as it does with the innovative build of the vehicles. “I have a good reputation in the industry,” he says. “I’m straightforward. When I tell you what I’m going to do, I’ll do it, and when I make a mistake, I correct it right away.”
Foris adds that he and the SVO Group appreciate their clients’ business and wholeheartedly back their dealers. The builder has seen a staggering 90-percent rate of return business, which he credits to being responsive to the needs of his customers. This, says Foris, is as simple as being available to answer a phone call. “We make it a point to answer our phones. We don’t like sending calls to voicemail. We want to make it easy for clients to do business with us.”
John Gore of US Fleet Services in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been doing business with Foris for years, and appreciates Foris’ dedication to his customers: “What I like best about dealing with Alex is his straight-forward approach to doing business. He knows the market that his product is perfect for, which is the limo industry, and his buses are a cut above.” Gore says that Embassy’s E450 and Freightliner models have been very popular among his clients in the N.Y. market.
Another SVO repeat customer is Rick Fugitt, co-owner Gateway Coachworks in Fort Myers, Fla., whose customers are excited by the Embassy line. “We’re thrilled Alex is back in the business. These new buses have real thought put into them ‘below the skin’ and are built with innovative techniques that eliminate water leaks. The operators we sell to love these products.”
While Foris is proud of his reputation among his clients, he is quick to share credit with the 32-person SVO team when it comes to the company’s success. “When I came back after my retirement, I had an advantage—I knew the people I wanted.”
Therefore, using his experience, Foris was able to hand-pick the best-of-the-best that the industry had to offer, which included Minix and Litrell. Other staff includes Gary Rivers, a former colleague of Foris at another company who now handles SVO’s sales and marketing, and Jackie Briggs, who is the company’s accountant and office manager. The next generation of bus builders is represented by Engineer Bryan Littrell, who’s instrumental in designing the vehicles with 3D software.
Foris’ vision for Embassy’s immediate future includes a Freightliner minicoach as well as a focus on specialty builds. Conscious that his dealer-partners aren’t necessarily looking for glitzy party buses with a stocked bar or pole inside—not to mention that those vehicles are nearly impossible to insure—he has a plan to create elegant coaches with executive travelers in mind.
Moreover, since retirement didn’t agree with Foris the first time, he has no plans to give it another shot.
“Retirement isn’t in my vocabulary,” he says. “This industry stays in your blood. I believe you have to keep your mind active. In the meantime, I just want to continue living up to our motto—where integrity meets craftsmanship for something genuinely different. We still maintain the integrity, and I’m never going to give that up.” [CD0417]