For merger veteran, it's all in the homeworkBefore buses, John Polli has led acquisitions in trucking, waste industries
John Polli has run several trucking, waste-disposal and school-bus businesses, and has spearheaded acquisitions of other firms.
But the 53-year-old Polli would rather talk about the people who work for the bus company, Reliance Student Transportation, that he started in late 2015 after successful stints operating waste firms and owning trucking businesses.
“Deals come and go, but the people don’t leave you,” Polli said. “I’m big on people, because the businesses I’ve been in, the school-bus, trucking and trash businesses, are all driven by people … literally, driven by people. So you have to make sure that you get good people, safe people who are operating your equipment.”
Reliance provides student transportation for schools in the West York School District and in Dallastown, where Polli lives with his wife, Maria, and two teenage sons.
A 1986 graduate of Penn State University, he prefers a low-key, cautious approach in business, and emphasizes some other traditional business skills – like owning up to your mistakes and doing your homework, and then doing some more, when acquiring a company.
When there’s a mistake, Polli said, the only solution is “to figure out what happened, figure out the root cause and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Polli, when asked what he sees as keys in negotiating a successful deal, thinks of one acquisition that didn’t go as well as he’d hoped.
Polli believes it was because the senior executives of the company he worked for at that time relied on an outside accounting firm to do too much of the due diligence on the company he was buying.
Ultimately, some details about the business were overlooked, and the deal turned out not to be what Polli had hoped, he said.
He declined to name the businesses involved, but not only was his company disappointed, so was the selling owner, whom Polli had come to know and respect.
Polli prides himself on being able to go back and have lunch with former owners of companies he has bought, knowing he did things the right way. But this time, because of everyone’s disappointment, Polli felt like he couldn’t.
“And that was the worst part,” he recalled.
Polli said he learned more than ever from that experience that it’s up to him to do the homework, not someone else.
Originally from Valley Forge, Polli came to enjoy the York area while on work assignments in Central Pennsylvania in the late 1980s for his first employer, accounting firm Arthur Andersen. He interviewed with Sen. Scott Wagner, then president and owner of the former York Waste Disposal. Wagner hired Polli as his controller. Polli impressed Wagner in “the thoroughness of what he does,” Wagner said recently.
Polli “is an extremely bright person, very methodical in everything he does,” said Robert Kinsley, founder of York County firms Kinsley Construction and Kinsley Properties/Management and a partner in York Waste.
They are talents Polli has applied at Reliance, which in just a year has gone from zero to $5.5 million in annual revenue. Polli hopes to expand the bus company over the next several years. It now has one bus terminal, in Dallastown, and is adding a second one in West York on July 1.
“I have a very clear vision of what I want to do over the next four years,” Polli said. “And it’s going to take a lot of work, and if I waver from that, I can’t get there. But if I go too hard, I lose people along the way. So you sort of have to find that balance.”
Polli learned his balance between aggression and caution from Kinsley and Wagner, who he said have been important friends and business mentors.
Polli emphasizes his is a locally-owned company, one that aims to work with budget-conscious school districts.
“We want to bring creative, local solutions for districts. My job is to not only be safe, and have the right people and right equipment, but to try to creatively be efficient in the delivery of our services,” Polli said.
Dart America, an Ohio trucking business that Polli also owns, calls on a “hugely detailed” GPS system, but since his buses don’t need as much detail, Reliance has a simple, efficient GPS that’s “not fancy, but it gives us the information we need at an effective price.”