Supplier Profile: First Transit

Transporting more than 160 million passengers, covering more than 260 million fleet miles and maintaining more than 50,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment is First Transit and First Services.

Bit by the Bug
In early 2009, Brad Thomas became the president of First Transit and First Services. He started in transit in contract grant administration, fresh out of college. “I went to work for a small regional transit company in the Northeast,” he says about working for Progressive Transportation Services out of New York State. “We were so small that quickly I had to become knowledgeable in different parts of the business.” And that led to becoming more and more involved with operations.

It was at this time that his interest in transportation grew. “I think I got bit by the bug at that point. The company grew and the opportunities for me grew.”

In 1996 Progressive Transportation Services was acquired by Coach USA and Thomas had the opportunity to work for a national transportation company. He ultimately became the president of Transit Services of that organization in 2000, an organization that was about $100 million in annual revenue.

“In 2003 we were acquired by First Transit and again I had a great opportunity to join an even larger organization,” Thomas says. “I became the senior vice president of the East region at that point, which was actually larger than the coach business I had been leading at that point.”

Keeping Communities Running
First Transit and First Services focuses on the public transit, shuttle services and fleet maintenance services. Behind that is First Group America, which includes First Student and Greyhound, all providing additional support.

“We’re able to focus on the parts where we provide service, but we have the support of a larger organization behind us and the resources that go along with it.” He adds, “That could mean everything from sharing best practices throughout the different types of businesses; a lot of things translate from one business to the other.

“I think people might not know how diverse of an organization we are,” he emphasizes. “We’re clearly known in the public transportation industry as a contractor for fixed-route and paratransit, but we’re getting more and more involved in the shuttle business, universities and airports and corporate shuttle.”

First Services provides fleet maintenance and employs about 3,500 people, most of which are technicians. “We maintain more than 50,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment nationwide,” Thomas says. “We maintain everything from police and fire fleets down to street sweepers, rescue boats and motorcycles for municipalities.”

First Services allows the municipalities and organizations to concentrate on the services they are tasked with providing their communities. “This is an area of our business that has been growing consistently,” stresses Thomas. “More and more of these municipalities and corporations realize that they want to be able to concentrate on their task they have to do every day; they would rather leave the maintenance of their fleet to a maintenance expert.” He adds, “It will save them dollars, it will save taxpayer dollars, it will keep the quality of the service up.”

Behind the Operations
There’s never a day that goes by that there isn’t a lot happening, Thomas says of transit. “There are a lot of things going on every day and a lot of different things to get excited about.”

Thomas came up through the business on the operations side, and that’s what he said really interests him. “I’m very interested in how systems run and the systems of getting people from point A to point B; how you can do it more efficiently, and how you can be cost-effective.”

Another thing he likes to talk about is the people. “We all share a passion for transportation,” he stresses. “This organization has a long history; there are people who have been in this organization for 30-plus years.

“We operate in a really wide variety of places: urban, rural, all over the country,” Thomas says. “I think that if you’re a good, solid organization, I think if you’re committed to your employees that they will find you and they will stay with you.” He adds, “People come to work for us because they share a passion for the business, but they stay because we’re a good organization that treats its people well.”

Tom Irvin, a director of operations in the Transportation Management division of First Transit echoes what Thomas says. “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, with various competitors and with First Transit the last two years. It’s a dynamic, growing, well-lead organization with a loyalty to its employees.” He emphasizes, “That goes both ways; they take care of us and we take care of the company.”

The People of First Transit
“We are a diverse organization with a lot of different people with a large knowledge base,” says Thomas. “We’re able to draw from that and so we are able to be responsive to our clients and their need, no matter what they are looking for.”

That opportunity to get involved in a host of different types of transportation outside of the traditional fixed-route and paratransit offers many resources. Drawing on that experience allows them to share that with their other customers and opens up opportunities and the freedom to do anything.

“A key pillar of First Transit’s business model is what we call “the power of a network,” explains Dave Lee, general manager of CTTransit and an area vice president for First Transit.

“While no individual manager has all the answers, the collective expertise of First Transit personnel throughout the country can offer answers to most questions and solutions to most problems.”

This close connection to others in the country is one thing many First Transit employees mention. Norman Schenck, director of paratransit with Sun Metro LIFT shares his experience. “I’ve done it both ways, worked at two properties where I worked for great cities and organizations, but when it came time to finding creative solutions to challenges, I may have had some resources, like TCRP reports, but I didn’t have a person I could contact and get more information, someone I knew because I spent time with them at our annual meetings or at other corporate training events like First Transit University.”

He continues, “We have a bulletin board called First Family and that is what working for this company is like. We celebrate and learn together like a big family, drawing on expertise of our more experienced members.”

Sioux Area Metro General Manager Karen Walton explains it well, “There is no such thing as reinventing perfectly working wheels with this company. Somewhere, someone has already faced that issue and everyone is always willing to share.”

Lee explains First Transit’s resources further. “All First Transit managers can access an Intranet site where we upload copies of bid specifications, policies and procedures, training materials and operational plans. All managers are also linked in an email network that allows rapid response for information sharing and problem-solving.

“First Transit managers understand they are expected to use the network — as a value-added service for their customers, as a tool to support their own operations and to share experience with their colleagues.”

Walton talks further about the benefit of the network. “Being part of First Transit is invaluable if you have questions or problems. You email your issue to First Request and within 48 hours, First Transit-run agencies from all over the U.S. are giving you words of advice or are supplying you with copies of their policies or specifications.”

Director of Operations in the Transportation Management Division, Tom Irvin also explains how the large, national network helps. “There are more than 230 different transit locations; I’m getting ideas, samples, policies and I can choose what will work best for me.”

Dennis Jensen, general manager at Duluth Transit Authority and an area vice president of First Transit shares how this network improves their performance. “When you have a large, related group of transit operations, all using the same key performance indicators and monitoring a national bulletin board, there is a certain degree of competitiveness that develops.” He continues, “This competition definitely works to improve our performance in all areas of the operation and we like to be recognized as a high-performing system among our peers.”

A Safety Culture
One area of focus for First Transit that Brad Thomas mentions specifically is safety. He shares that a few years back the company took a look at itself and pushed safety to the forefront.
“First Transit has an abundance of resources available to its employees, from the Safety Resource Center to leveraging our buying power and getting great prices through our corporate purchasing agreements,” says Scott Lansing, a general manager with First Transit in Austin. “Our emphasis on safety is much more than words on paper; it’s a way of life for First Transit employees.”

Dave Van Fossen, a general manager with First Transit says, “As part of a larger company, we receive resources that would be otherwise unavailable. These resources include professionally produced training materials, including workbooks, handouts and videos that are current and relevant for both maintenance and operations.”

That information, he says, also includes safety procedures. “We also have information and materials on current safety issues and concerns that we can immediately share with our employees. All these resources make us a more safety-conscious and focused organization.”

As Jensen says, “Safety is part of the management culture which works to keep a constant focus on all the elements necessary for a successful program.” He explains, “We are able to measure the results of our safety practices against those of other systems and implement programs that have proven to be successful at other First Transit systems.”

Lansing emphasizes, “We live, eat and breathe safety at First Transit. If we can’t do it safely, we won’t do it.”

Building Trust, Building Partnerships
An interesting aspect of the organization is the importance of how they are seen in the communities they work in. “People seeing our buses operating in the community, they don’t know that we’re operating that vehicle,” says Thomas. “The public can’t necessarily differentiate between,” he pauses and reiterates, “They see that as the municipality that’s operating that vehicle so we have to be good.”

He stresses, “The partnership is strengthened and we represent that client in the community in a way that we really feel that we’re their partner.”

“We provide more than 160 million passenger trips a year so certainly that is a huge responsibility.”

“I think that we have been able to provide our clients with transportation at a very competitive price and that there are parts of this industry that are growing, where there is more opportunity than ever before.”

Lansing shares a similar sentiment. “The synergies and expertise that exist because of our size extend to the local level and ultimately, our customers.

“We understand what it takes to run an efficient, effective, public transport system and we apply that knowledge to every contract we have.”

He continues, “While there are many differences between agencies, there are many more similarities and we share the same ultimate goal — quality service at an affordable price. The more we share, the more we learn; the more we learn, the more we share.”

Jensen says, “Public transit, by its very nature is often subject to politics and sometimes decisions made on a political basis are not always in the best interest of the agency or the public.
“I believe that the biggest advantage of being part of a large national organization is having the backup expertise and resources available to develop, support and defend positions that are right for the agency.”

Thomas says, “A lot of municipalities are dealing with budget crunches, they’re dealing with reduced tax revenue and, as a result of that, the opportunity to contract out, whether it’s for transit services or for our First Services fleet maintenance, it’s there.

“I think that an organization like ours can provide them opportunities to continue to provide these services, to do it at a lower cost and that’s an opportunity for us.”