Transportation pioneer Jan den Oudsten, who shaped North American transit bus in Winnipeg, dead at 92
New Flyer founder catapulted Winnipeg-based bus manufacturer to industry leader
A Dutch man who shaped the modern-day, North American transit bus during his time in Winnipeg has died.
Jan den Oudsten passed away in the Netherlands on Wednesday at the age of 92. Den Oudsten moved to Canada in the 1980s and purchased Winnipeg-based Flyer Industries in 1986, renaming the company New Flyer.
"What he brought to North America was the concept of low-floor, low-entry buses," said Paul Soubry, president and CEO of NFI Group, now the parent company of New Flyer.
"Up to that point in time, all transit buses in North America were like school buses," he told CBC, as they had stairs at the front which were difficult to climb for some.
New Flyer's innovation took North America's transportation industry by storm, catapulting New Flyer into the continent's top bus manufacturer. Less than a decade later, the entire industry had followed den Oudsten's lead, he said.
"His legacy on what is now New Flyer and the market leader in North America can definitely not be underestimated," said Soubry.
In 2019, den Oudsten donated $1.5 million to Red River College for its then-called Heavy Equipment Transportation Centre, which is now known as the Jan den Oudsten Vehicle Technology & Research Centre.
"He also was very unique in that he believed in research and development in an industry, which is not always the case in North America because it doesn't pay well up front," Dr. Peter H. Markesteyn, a longtime friend of den Oudsten, told CBC.
He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2021 for his innovations and contributions to the North American transportation market.
Alongside the low-floor bus, den Oudsten also helped pioneer hydrogen fuel cell innovations for buses.
'A great loss'
He lived in Winnipeg until his retirement in 2001, when he sold New Flyer and moved to Alberta, said Markesteyn.
"He and his wife enjoyed living in Winnipeg and were sad to leave it in the end when they decided to."
Markesteyn said den Oudsten had a reputation for kindness and generosity toward his employees.
"He did not have the culture of adversarial relationship with the workers," he said.
Soubry echoed those sentiments, noting people who worked with den Oudsten knew him as a hands-on boss whose personal involvement remains part of the legacy that NFI tries to maintain.
"When you met Mr. den Oudsten, immediately you were blown away by the kind, gentle, serious, empathetic-type style that he had ... deep, deep blue eyes that looked right into you and into your heart," Soubry said.
He was also an avid reader and deeply interested in history, Markesteyn said.
"It's a great loss and he was, in my opinion, an example of a leader who took care of his workers."
With files from Rachel Ferstl and The Canadian Press