Driving The Beat
Anyone who spends much time around Columbia will soon grow used to spotting Norm Ruebling. After all, he’s kind of hard to miss, what with his band, his business, his wacky commercials and his habit of wearing Hawaiian shirts, no matter the occasion.
But wait — this breaking fashion news just in — Ruebling’s Hawaiian shirts may be on the way out.
“I did just go out and buy a whole wardrobe of solid shirts,” he says. “You know me. I like to fly underneath the radar. I’m thinking the solid shirts will help me to do that.”
A simple change of shirt is not likely to send Ruebling fading into the background. This is a man who has built more than one successful career making lots of noise. He’s probably best known today for his transportation businesses, MO-X and Doc & Norm Direct. The zany commercials that star him with his partner Brent “Doc” Moore with the MO-X girls have people all over mid-Missouri clapping their hands and saying, “We want you to ride MO-X!”
But rivaling his MO-X claim to fame is Ruebling’s status as a local music celebrity. For 25 years now, he has led a successful self-named band that covers blues, R&B, classic rock, big band, jazz and soul. And back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ruebling was the director of Marching Mizzou.
At first glance, it might not seem that his love for music and his transportation businesses are related — awesome MO-X music videos notwithstanding — but, it turns out, one did lead to the other.
Batons to Buses
After earning a bachelor’s and master’s in music education from MU — where he also marched in Marching Mizzou and was Mini Mizzou’s first drummer when it started in ’73 — Ruebling took a job directing a high school band in Union. Next, he directed college bands in Louisiana and Kansas before becoming director of Marching Mizzou in 1988, a post, he says was “a huge thrill.”
“To have the opportunity to come back and teach and be the band director here — it was just one of those jobs you think you’re never going to get,” he says.
It was through his job at Mizzou that Ruebling connected with the owner of Tiger Air Express, a now-defunct shuttle business that was up-and-coming in the early 1990s. Marching Mizzou often used the shuttle service, and the Tiger Air owner kept telling Ruebling that if he wanted to come direct Tiger Air’s marketing, there would always be a spot for him. After six years at Mizzou, Ruebling finally decided to take that offer.
“It was something new, something different,” Ruebling says, explaining why he made the move. “I had a lot of freedom.”
Although he had no official marketing experience, Ruebling felt up for anything after directing some 250 to 300 college band students.
“Just imagine that — having that many kids around and all of the issues and problems and laughs that go on with organizing and running a band,” he says. “Anybody who’s a band director can probably go out and do just about any vocation.”
Besides, he says with a laugh, he had his “charming and warm appearance” to win over potential customers.
“I’ve always been one who’s not afraid to talk to anybody,” he says. “I’ll go knock on any door. I’ll sit down with anybody. Back then, Tiger Air kind of waited for people to look them up and call them on the phone. So when I got into it, first of all I found out: ‘OK. Who uses buses?’ And I found out it’s amazing who uses buses.
“The Branson thing was just getting ready to go absolutely crazy, and that for a while was bus mecca of the world,” he continues. “So I contacted tour companies all over the United States and Canada that flew in groups to offer to get a bus to them and bring them down there.”
He also called local high schools and colleges, as well as schools with athletic teams that traveled to mid-Missouri.
“They just needed someone to pick up the phone or go to the school or go to the office or wherever and tell them what we had to offer,” he says.
Not long after he joined, Ruebling saw Tiger Air expand from its one Columbia office to offices in Springfield, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Then, in the late ’90s, a nationwide venture business bought out Tiger Air, and things “took a nosedive,” Ruebling says. That’s when he and Moore, who also worked at Tiger Air but in operations, decided to launch MO-X. They ran their first shuttle in October 1999.
In the 15 years since, Moore — who, Ruebling says, can run the “entire business in his head” — and Ruebling — who, Moore says, is the one out “shaking hands and kissing babies” — have added the Doc & Norm charter service and have a fleet of vehicles that includes 17 vans, 10 mini-buses, seven motor coaches and four SUVs. More than 75 people work at the two businesses, and along with the home office in Columbia, there’s a second office near St. Louis in Hamel, Ill.
It’s obviously been a great success, but there were times when Ruebling wondered if even a band director could pull it off.
“When we first started, I had no idea the hours it would take,” he says. “Doc and me, we both had sleeping bags at our offices, and it was not unusual for us to sleep on the floor and get up and do it again the next day.”
Although that work ethic was necessary, it is not what Ruebling identifies as the secret to MO-X’s success. That, he says, has “always been the guys and gals who work for us. Our staff is incredible, and that’s everybody, from our drivers to our managers to our dispatchers to our mechanics to our folks at the counter.”
Family Fun Time
Work is not the only place where Ruebling is quick to credit others with his success. At home, he points to his wife, Connie, as the one who has made life go well.
“She made it easy,” he says, recalling how he kept up with both his career and family. “She runs the household and does an amazing job with it. If I had to switch jobs with her and me, I would keep my job.”
The Rueblings have been married for 26 years and have two children, a son who is finishing up a music degree at MU and a daughter who is a sophomore at University of Arkansas.
With their kids grown, Norm and Connie Ruebling take frequent mini vacations together, “here, there and everywhere,” Norm says.
“We love going to New York,” he says. “We go to watch the shows, and there are a couple of bands we go see. One of my favorite drummers is Tommy Igoe. He plays at the Birdland Jazz Club down by Times Square, and we plan our trips around when he’ll be there.
“Last year, we went back down to New Orleans,” he adds. “There’s something about New Orleans — I love that town.”
When the kids were growing up, Ruebling convinced them Disney Word was the best place for family vacations. Their family went seven or eight years in a row.
“Little did they know I was the one who wanted to go there the most,” Ruebling says. “I could ride Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster all day. We’ve been talking about resurrecting that tradition, and maybe going back one of these summers coming up.”
In Columbia, one of Norm and Connie’s favorite pastimes is going to the movies.
“And we love to eat at Murry’s,” Ruebling says.
Then there are his band gigs. The Norm Ruebling Band has a large, devoted following, and interacting with the fans is “one of the most rewarding things about playing,” Ruebling says.
“I think people look forward to coming out and hearing our band,” he says. “The band we have now is so unique. You just don’t hear horn bands anymore, and our repertoire is very different. I have surrounded myself with the greatest musicians in the world, and I always say they even make the drummer look good.”
So once again, Ruebling credits his achievements to others. That outlook seems to be serving him well. Asked what he’s looking forward to right now, he responds, “I look forward to every day.”
“I am so blessed,” he adds. “I mean, I’m 61 years old. Do I think about retiring? Never. I mean, Mick Jagger is, what, 71 years old? Paul McCartney is 72? And those guys are still rockin’. I think I’ll quit when they quit.”
“It’s The Weirdest Thing”
How Ruebling Found His Inner Musician
Ruebling traces his music career back to a twist of fate in junior high. One summer day, some of his buddies went to school to help their new band director organize the band room. Ruebling wasn’t in band but “for nothing else better to do, I went along with them,” he says.
The band director asked each of the boys what they played, including Ruebling, who told him he didn’t play anything; he wasn’t in the band.
“And he goes: ‘Well, I need a drummer. Would you be interested?’ ” Ruebling recalls. “And I go, ‘I don’t play anything,’ and he said, ‘I’ll make you a drummer.’
“So that’s how it started,” Ruebling continues. “It’s the weirdest thing. I might not have ever played had I not been there that day with some friends.”