Virginia bus company takes a nonstop route through the pandemic
In troubled times for transportation and travel, banking partners helped the storied James River Transportation company keep rolling.
From its point of origin as a bus line in the 1920s, James River Transportation started as a scheduled route along the waterway it was named after, bringing shoppers from outlying areas to Richmond, Virginia. Over the years, as the local population grew and business diversified, it became a well-known transportation service, safely shuttling everyone from international dignitaries to schoolchildren.
“Even before my father bought the company, James River was known and admired as a small business locally,” said Stephen Story, the company’s current co-owner. “Our focus has always been on excellent customer service. We’ve always known that every person out there could be a good client, so we want to treat everyone equally. We just always felt like that was the right thing to do.”
James River became a transportation provider for sports teams and music groups with the local schools, business and leisure travelers using the airport, and military personnel as a contractor for the U.S. Armed Forces, assisting in all major military events including World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Due to its proximity to the nation’s capital, James River has also taken visitors across the Potomac to Washington, D.C., for events such as presidential inaugurations.
In 2007, James River transported the queen of England to local Jamestown celebrations, commemorating the founding of Americas first permanent English settlement. Its fleet of chartered buses also famously provided transportation to the 1963 March on Washington for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“We’ve always known that every person out there could be a good client, so we want to treat everyone equally. We just always felt like that was the right thing to do.” — Stephen Story, Co-owner of James River Transportation
Keeping the company rolling
The Story family took ownership of the company in the 1970s, with Stephen Story and his sister Diane Hall taking leadership in the 1980s. By then, the company was firmly established in the community and had expanded to Williamsburg and Norfolk. Today, the firm encompasses a fleet of more than 80 vehicles and about 200 employees.
Story initiated James River’s equipment financing with a Wells Fargo predecessor, which eventually became Wells Fargo Equipment Finance. During subsequent bank acquisitions, more of James River’s accounts ended up under the Wells Fargo umbrella.
“Since we are a small company, at first, I wasn’t sure I wanted all our eggs in one basket, so to speak,” Story said. “I wasn’t sure how much attention and service a company like us would get from a large bank like Wells Fargo.”
Seth Feibelman was one of the bankers who helped Story and his family get comfortable with a bigger bank, and Wells Fargo now handles James River’s operating accounts, a working capital line of credit, commercial real estate financing, as well as equipment financing.
Feibelman, who grew up in Richmond and remembers taking school trips on James River buses, said he has a lot of respect for the operation, as well as the partnership with Story.
“I brag to my colleagues about (Stephen Story), because he is really the model client,” said Feibelman. “He's transparent, he's very thoughtful and strategic about how he runs his business, and he really values relationships, just like we do. We both bring each other ideas.”
“I am a planner by nature, but I didn’t plan for a pandemic and a 50% – 60% decrease in revenue,” — Stephen Story
When the pandemic dramatically slowed down U.S. tourism and travel in 2020, with the industry seeing decreases in travel spending by more than 40%, Wells Fargo proved to Story that banking was better as a two-way street.
“I am a planner by nature, but I didn’t plan for a pandemic and a 50% – 60% decrease in revenue,” Story said.
Noting the major roadblock, Wells Fargo pared down payments so the company paid interest-only on its loans for several months, which allowed it to continue to pay staff. Even with ridership basically at a halt, James River was able to pay its employees while they attended advanced job training.
Story and his advisors also noted interest in the Main Street Loan program, a limited offering for companies that met stringent requirements. Wells Fargo worked with the company to obtain the loan.
“It was a complex program with lots of rules and documentation, but it ended up being a good fit for James River Transportation,” Feibelman said.
James River is getting back on the road as pandemic restrictions are lifted and travel and tourism businesses begin to pick up again. Its buses have always been equipped with state-of-the art ventilation systems, and its cleaning crews are central to the premium customer service it offers. But Story feels that banking and financial decisions made in partnership with Wells Fargo during the pandemic made a first-class difference in its ability to stay on course to complete a century in business.
“My banking team and advisors understood that it wasn’t about how we save a dollar today,” Story said. “It was about how we were going to be able to save our employees and keep our clients, so we can be here for them tomorrow.”
“My banking team and advisors understood that it wasn’t about how we save a dollar today. It was about how we were going to be able to save our employees and keep our clients, so we can be here for them tomorrow.” — Stephen Story