“I was never the long-term guy. I was the fix the problem, get out and move to the next problem. I wasn’t good for the agency long term because I loved to change things. And an agency can only do that for so long before they run out of breath.
“And so I would do a three- or four-year stint somewhere, fix the problem, get out, move to the next place and fix the problem because that’s what I thrived on.
Along the way Melaniphy earned his MBA and began looking across the fence at the private side of the transit industry. Having moved six times in 11 years, Melaniphy and his wife were looking to move back home to the Chicago area.
“[I] kind of looked around and said we don’t have a family, don’t have a bunch of friends, don’t get rooted in your community, don’t get involved in your church and a lot of things because you know you are leaving.
“So we wanted to go someplace where we could settle down and stay and [Chicago] is home for my wife and I. So we came here and started a family and all that good stuff. Which has been a great reward.
“And I wanted a place that was based here so as I got promoted I could stay and not have to move. Because that is the gig when you’re a GM of an agency, you want to keep growing and you gotta keep moving to other cities, progressively bigger cities.”
Melaniphy was buying MCI buses in Charlotte at the time and the salesperson at the company asked if he was interested in a job and soon he was selling buses instead of buying them.
“I was a totally different mix. I was a transit general manager. They never had anybody like that doing bus sales,” Melaniphy says.
Melaniphy says he was “scared to death” about switching over to the private sector. He and his wife carpooled while he was in transit and he knew what he would be doing every day.
As he says, “I could run a transit system. I knew how to do it and I was good at it.
“And to go to the other side, on the private side. I thought I knew the business. And I thought OK I can come over and do that. The biggest shock for me was I thought I knew the business.
“I didn’t know the business.”
Melaniphy explains that he didn’t appreciate the business side of the business. He didn’t understand the consequences of what he did as a GM on the public side.
“I look back and I’ll go, ‘I was a mean bastard.’ And I was and I’ll say that publicly.”
He says now it’s almost become a personal crusade to increase the discussion on procurement to get the industry to move forward and develop a partnership instead of the traditional us/them mentality.
“It doesn’t matter which side you’re on there’s always that attitude, go after those guys and get the most you can.”
Motor Coach Industries
Ask Michael Melaniphy about the bus business and he will point to the fundamentals. He says it is very easy to go from a profitable business to a cash flow business, but that it’s in the best interest for the transit industry for all suppliers to be profitable.
“That’s what gives us the ability to service our customers and be innovative and give good customer support,” Melaniphy says.
“If everything is the cheapest way you do it and you wonder why you get a cheap part on your vehicle and it didn’t last as long and the support isn’t there to back it up, it’s because you asked for something as cheap as possible. You did that to yourself.
“Talk to any seasoned general manager out there, rail, bus it doesn’t matter, they will tell you a horror story in their career where they bought the cheapest thing and it didn’t work out in the long run.”
Melaniphy says at MCI they’ve never tried to be the low-cost supplier in the business because that’s not a sustainable model over time. He notes that you still need to watch costs, but just not be the cheapest guy all the time.
Motor Coach Industries has been in the transit industry for more than three quarters of a century and while it is now focused on commuter coaches, it built 30- and 40-foot transit coaches in the company’s history.
Melaniphy says as commuters started traveling longer they had a different expectation of transit service, which in some ways was more comparable to commuter rail.