One bus, a Greenport auto mechanic and his young bride.
The humble beginnings of Sunrise Coach Lines Inc. nearly nine decades ago proved to be the foundation for a thriving and community-centered transportation company that continues to stand the test of time.
Three generations have followed in the footsteps of Robert R. and Katherine Brown, whose ambitious 1937 venture to provide dependable transportation and delivery services on Long Island’s North Fork expanded to include school bus routes and coach trips, as well as public transit service across the East End.
Sunrise today has bussing contracts with six school districts and continues to handle public municipal transit on the island’s North and South forks. Still based in Greenport, the company also operates charter buses for weddings, wine tours, birthday parties and other private events.
“My great-grandfather was a very smart, very savvy businessman,” said Claire Martinez, 36, Sunrise’s administration officer and part of the fourth generation at company’s helm. “There must have been some kind of need in the community and he figured out a way to make it happen.”
Top: Herbert R Brown and Robert R Brown (Sunrise company founder) in 1927 standing in front of the Handy Gas Station in Greenport.
Fish, lumber and passengers
At the start, it was Robert R. Brown behind the wheel of that single Sunrise bus, adding a storage department that enabled the fledgling transportation company to move everything from fish to lumber — in addition to riders — between the ferry drop-off location in Orient Point and East Hampton. Katherine Brown served as the company’s bookkeeper, while taking on an assortment of other tasks that helped jumpstart the couple’s business.
“I love the fact that it was my grandfather who started it. I love the history of the company,” said Martinez’s mother, Michelle Scheffler, 60, who has worked full-time with Sunrise since about the time she turned 21. “It’s something I just grew up with. It was like a natural progression for me.
“I played in the back of the buses when I was 5 years old, and my father would bring me to the mechanic shop to teach me how to change the oil and the tires,” she added.
Scheffler said she distinctly remembers watching her mom, Christa Brown, painstakingly scrape gum from coach bus floors, back when Sunrise coach buses made runs to Manhattan and beyond.
It was Christa Brown and her husband — Robert R. Brown’s son Robert W. — who eventually took the reins of the company in the 1970s. Robert W., who had promised never to retire, ran the business with his wife until his death in 2005.
In addition to her administrative duties, Christa Brown, 82, has driven a school bus for more than 60 years.
Working from the bottom up
“We both worked from the bottom up,” said Christa Brown, referring to her husband. “We did the cleaning, the washing, the sweeping, and everything else.
“I always said I’ll do everything, including the floors and the windows. I was very meticulous about how I wanted the equipment to look,” she continued. “That helped our reputation — that we’re reliable and immaculate.
“I’ve always believed that hard work never hurt anybody.”
In 1956, Christa Brown was working in an Austin-Healey car dealership in Mannheim, Germany, when she met Robert W. Brown, who at the time was stationed in Germany as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She provided billing and translation services as her future groom purchased a British two-seater sports car.
“I guess he liked what he saw — he asked me out on a date,” the Brown family matriarch recalled with a bit of a mischievous laugh.
The rest was history.
Within a year, the two were married, living in Greenport and working for the Brown’ family business.
The more insight that Christa Brown and her daughter and granddaughter shares, the more it becomes clear that Sunrise has been much more than just a business. Its success — through challenges, transitions, and changing times — has been a testament to the values it holds dear: community, family and service.
Happy workforce key to success
Perhaps the most vital aspect of the company’s growth has been management’s dedication to the well-being of its employees.
“A lot of our employees are families: dads and daughters, in-laws, husbands and wives, brothers,” said Martinez, who rejoined the company five years ago after living in Los Angeles and Memphis while coordinating special events in the entertainment industry.
”That’s something we’re very proud of,” she continued. “The company has provided a great life for our family. And it’s provided a great life for other families, as well.”
Martinez added that the company is driven by the value of “family first.”
“We want to make sure that our employees are able to spend time with their families. We take our staff’s well being to heart,” she said. “We want them to be happy and come to work every day and enjoy what they do.”
It helps that no one in management is stuck behind a desk. Brown, Scheffler, Martinez and Martinez’s husband Frank — who make up the Sunrise management team — all regularly get behind the wheel of a bus.
Leading by example has long been a hallmark of Sunrise.
“We all drive the buses,” Scheffler said. “That was always a big thing for my parents. We’re not going to ask anything of our employees that we aren’t willing to do as well.”
Scheffler said she thoroughly enjoys driving a bus.
“I love driving the kids because they’re ‘my kids,’” said Scheffler, who transports students in kindergarten through 12th grade. “The kids tell me their problems. I hear their life stories all day long. Driving that bus is the best part of my day. I know it’s not for everybody, but it’s definitely for me.”
Martinez noted how she takes great pride in hearing directly from the Sunrise staff “how much they love this company and want to know if there’s any way they can help us.”
“They’re invested in this company as much as we are,” she said. “That’s the most rewarding thing.”
Scheffler said Sunrise would “be lost without” its employees.
“We have quite a few people who are always willing to pitch in,” she said. “It’s been very difficult recently, dealing with a nationwide driver shortage. But everybody has stepped in when they can, and I am so grateful for that.”
Brown emphasized, “We always try to take care of our employees.”
“You can ask every one of our bus drivers and they’ll tell you that they love what they’re doing,” she said.
Brown and her family certainly love what they, themselves, are doing.
“My husband never wanted to retire,” Brown said. “How can I do anything less?”