President Reagan earned the moniker “The Great Communicator” for his emotional speeches and down-to-Earth style in dealing with everyone he came into contact with. When I had a chance to sit down with VIA Metropolitan Transit’s (VIA) president and CEO, Keith Parker, and talk to him about San Antonio’s transit system he had some of that same enthusiasm and style.
It’s easy to see how much Parker loves transit and San Antonio’s system in particular. Parker lived the nomadic transit executive life early in his career, with senior positions in Stockton, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; and Vancouver, Wash., but his communication skills were honed when he became the COO at the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS).
While working in Charlotte, Parker held positions both at the transit authority (as COO and eventually CEO) and within the city government as assistant city manager. It was shifting between these two realms of public service that gave him the scope of transit’s reach.
“It gave me more of a sense of how transit fit as just a piece of all of the governmental services if you will,” Parker says.
“One of the things we really did well in Charlotte was the coordination between the police and the transit system, between the transit system and the public utilities … so getting those partnerships and collaborations together were things that were really enhanced during my time in the city manager’s office.”
After nearly a decade in Charlotte, Parker was contacted by VIA to bring his transit talent to San Antonio and help the system take the next step.
“It was we want to bring you out here and get our bus system up and running to a level that we would be comfortable with and we want to start looking at how we can move into multimodal transportation,” Parker says.
“That was pretty enticing to me to have a chance to go after something that was just on the cusp of what I would say being a first tier transit system, and in the short time we’ve been here we’ve been able to make some significant improvements I think.”
Parker has had the enviable or unenviable position of replacing industry legends when taking the CEO positions in both Charlotte and San Antonio. In Charlotte, he replaced Ron Tober, a 40-year industry veteran and former APTA chairman who had been the CATS CEO for the previous eight years.
Coming to San Antonio, Parker was being tasked to replace John Milam, a VIA veteran for more than 30 years and CEO for the past 16. Needless to say he had some big shoes to fill. So what was it like to step into those positions? Parker says the secret is in effective communication.
“In both cases in Charlotte and in San Antonio, I talked to both [Tober and Milam] quite a bit to get their perspective on what were the strengths and weaknesses of the agency and then try to learn and build off of what they had already established and then try to bring my own form of management and leadership,” Parker says.
Parker admits that he had the advantageous position of walking into an agency with a receptive staff and a supportive board.
“It’s not as daunting if you don’t walk in saying you’ve got all the answers and those guys had it all wrong,” Parker says. Instead, he says he tried to come in and build off the good things that were in place before he arrived.
Parker says that in both Charlotte and San Antonio he had the fortune of Milam and Tober to consult with when stepping into their positions.
“[John] and I talked, particularly when I first got here, quite often. And he’s very gracious. He still lives in the community. That also makes it pretty easy.
“Ron [and I,] we’re friends and we’ll always be. And Ron is legendary in the industry. So calling on him, he’s always gracious with advice and gracious with his time,” Parker says.
Establishing Lines of Communication
Parker says it’s a balancing act effecting change when coming to a new agency because in an agency that isn’t completely broken there is a resistance to change, while an agency with serious problems is more receptive to wholesale changes.