Motor Coach Industries’ (MCI) vice president of the public sector, Michael Melaniphy, got started in transit not for a familial history in the business or a love for all things bus. No, it was a matter of applied economics when he was in college.
“It was the highest paying job on campus at Indiana University,” says Melaniphy with a smile.
In fairness, Melaniphy went to Indiana University specifically to study transportation, which at the time was one of the few transportation schools in the country. And he is proud to say that his degree in transportation was paid for by transit.
“I put myself through college [driving a bus]. Highest paying job by far in school was driving the bus, so that’s what I did. If it had been bagging groceries, I would probably be doing groceries right now.”
While in college Melaniphy worked in transit as a summer intern for the county department of transportation (DOT), a job which he thinks is essential for people entering the industry.
“I’d say to the young people, get that early stuff. Go out and do it. Do transit counts. Ride buses. Or clean buses. Do something at least tangentially related to the transit industry.
Because as we do hiring and as a senior manager who hires people I look at that stuff and go hey, they really made the effort early on.”
Melaniphy looks back at that time as a series of life lessons and skills he still uses today. He even maintains a valid CDL and can still drive a bus!
Melaniphy’s transit industry journey started in the public sector. After leaving college he worked for then ATE Management & Services Co. (now First Transit) as a consultant because as he deadpans, “clearly coming right out of college I had lots of knowledge to consult other people on what to do.”
Living the nomadic life that most transit executives do, Melaniphy worked in public transit systems across the United States.
He spent time in Laredo, Texas, as a planner and assistant general manager. “Down there we passed our first small system transit tax in the state of Texas. So I learned about elections, learned about politics, learned about operations. I had 92 employees that worked for me. Only a third of the workforce spoke English.”
He then went to Hamilton, Ohio, and became general manager. “It was my first GM job. Small system. You have to do everything. I took buses apart. I ordered parts. I wrote the schedules. Learned how to do run cuts. Learned how to buy buses. Learned how to do politics. All those things. Learned all about MPOs.
“Everybody should run a small system sometime in their career in this industry because you have to do it all. And I have such an appreciation for the rural and small operators across this country that do a thousand things and don’t get paid very well and do it because they love it and what it does for the country.”
From Ohio Melaniphy moved to Wichita, Kan., which he calls a big small system. “Reorganized that whole agency there. Made it much more efficient. Got into building a new facility.
“I learned how to lobby there. And do state lobbying and federal lobbying. That was a great experience.”
And went on to what he calls a small big system in Charlotte, N.C., as general manager. “I was GM in Charlotte for four years and was there when we passed the transit tax.
“I created the umbrella that eventually brought in Ron Tober as the executive director of the new overarching agency and Keith Parker came in as the CEO and then my role changed and it was really time for me to find a new opportunity.”
As Melaniphy explains it, there are two types of general managers in the U.S. transit industry. “There are the guys that are change agents. They come in and change everything. And then there are the guys that are great at running things day to day that refine the agency that bring a calmness to the organization and a long-term view.