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German bus maker in rural America

By BRAD SMITH

LAMAR, Colo. -- A bus manufacturing company with West German roots and business philosophy has found happiness in rural eastern Colorado.

And that's not as strange as it sounds; the company likes to hire independent, handy farm folk.

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Neoplan USA President Heinz Schoellhammer likes to say, 'We brought the old type of American business back. We are bringing Henry Ford back.'

Neoplan, founded in 1935 in Stuttgart as a coach building firm, didn't move to the Great Plains with its eyes closed. The company was looking for just such an area.

Neoplan came to Lamar partly because of the company's experience in its plants in other rural areas, he said. The company fosters a family atmosphere in its plants, and deliberately limits them to 500 employees at most.

Neoplan's philosophy is people-oriented, with a limited inventory to keep financing costs down and a quality product that can be customized for different orders.

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'Our goal is to stay as close to the one person level as possible,' says Schoellhammer. 'We're trying to be a team that works closely together.

'The small size gives us an easier system to control. It also gives us the personal touch.'

For employees it prefers rural people, particularly those from farms or ranches who can take care of themselves and are capable of using a wide array of tools, says Harvey Dick, Neoplan vice president of operations.

'As farmers they had to repair their own machines,' Dick said. 'They are handy from being on the farm.'

Before the plant opened, foremen were hired locally for each department and sent to West Germany for training. Lamar Community College set up a training program for the 150 workers hired initially.

Most of those original employees remain, and the plant now is over its 500 worker limit. Schoellhammer is pleased with the low turnover, but not surprised.

'If somebody is proud of what he does, he will stay. If it is just for money that he works, he will go. We have a good stable workforce that is the essence of the factory.'

Business has been good for Neoplan. It has built more than 250 buses, each taking 14 days to construct, and has a backlog of orders into 1985. The buses have been built on order for transit systems around the United States, with the largest order to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority.

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Neoplan built its reputation in Europe on its tour bus, but nearly all of its sales in the U.S. have been to transit authorities.

The buses have an international character, although Dick says they are 94 percent American. They use a German front suspension and a French-designed differential.

'We're assemblers, not manufacturers,' Dick says, because most of the components are made elsewhere and shipped to Lamar for assembly. Some of the suppliers have built their own plants nearby.

Once the bus has been constructed, using the changes in the basic design ordered by the buyer, each one is tested by the workers themselves. The employees are driven home in the buses and are asked to critique their own work.

Although the plant is nearly at capacity, Schoellhammer says there are no plans for expansion. 'There is a growth level beyond which we do not want to go. We would lose the personal touch,' he says.

An effort to unionize the plant lost by a 5-to-1 ratio in an election last May.

'There was no real need for a union,' says Schoellhammer. 'But a union wouldn't change the character of the company.'

Neoplan's workers have an employees' council, elected by the workers, that meets weekly to discuss working conditions, job changes, safety, the buses and the future.

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One difference Neoplan has found in attitudes of workers in Europe and the U.S. is their luncheon habits.

The company's European plants have a large lunch room that becomes the center of a social hour as well as eating place. The same lunch room was included in the Lamar plant design, but few workers use it.

'Here, the workers bring their lunch and want to eat it as quickly as possible,' says Dick. 'They don't socialize like they do in Europe.'

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