It’s hard not to like Austin Capital Metro’s president and CEO, Fred Gilliam. He has that Southern charm and a smile as wide as a Texas mile. For Gilliam, transit is about not just getting people on the bus or train, but making sure they have a good enough time while they are there to make them want to keep coming back for more. As for transit industry experience, well, he’s got that in spades.
Gilliam has been in the transit industry for more than 40 years and has worked in more places than most people live in their lifetime, not to mention a stint working with a bus manufacturer. And to think he started out as a traffic checker.
As with many people I have asked about their careers in transit, Gilliam says his began by accident. He wasn’t even looking for a position when his father received a call from one of Gilliam’s friends letting him know about a position open at MATA, the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
While he didn’t know what a traffic checker was, Gilliam was happy to have the job. “I enjoyed the flexibility of the job along with just understanding — it was the nuts and bolts of what the nature of the job was and it had a lot of diversity to it. I mean it was not always checking traffic, which is passengers and on-time performance.”
Gilliam’s job with Memphis would lead him to research why people were not using the system and what they could do as an organization to encourage people to use it. He would put his research to work undertaking the scheduling at MATA until he was offered an opportunity to step into an assistant director’s roll at Tulsa Transit in Oklahoma.
Gilliam flourished in Tulsa, helping the agency grow from a daily ridership of 4,500 people with a 45-bus fleet to 22,000 daily rides and 125 buses in the fleet in three years.
“And it was a lot of fun doing because the person I went to work for at the time was a promoter,” Gilliam says. “Some of that rubbed off on me in a sense and with my operating and scheduling background we were a good team and a good fit together. So I restructured the system and we put into place a system to get the improvements.”
Gilliam’s next step was to a private management company, ATE, the precursor to First Transit, where he would work for quite some time all over the middle of the United States.
Gilliam’s history with ATE reads like a Who’s Who of transit agencies. He worked in Denver as assistant general manager, back to Memphis as assistant general manager and general manager, was the first public general manager at the RTA in New Orleans, served as a regional manager for ATE overseeing 16 states from Minnesota to Texas and from Alabama to Colorado. Despite his background in public transit, Gilliam would soon take a position with Chance Coach, which would go on to become Optima Bus, and helped them develop its Opus bus. “I helped develop a new bus and I was part owner,” Gilliam says, but after a few years there, family matters had him and his wife make a conscientious decision to live near Austin.
“By the time I was in the process of selecting a place to live, an opportunity came available [at Capital Metro] and so I was asked if I had any interest in working here,” Gilliam says. “I was actually hired as the deputy [general manager] and worked about three or four months and the opportunity came available to be head of the organization, so I’ve been here for six years and about five months or somewhere like that.”
Gilliam says with a smile that he thinks he has covered almost every place twice, “It’s always good to be involved in something you know and some of the people. But the different locations, you know, have always been very rewarding to me.”
Public vs. Private
Capital Metro is entirely contracted service. Due to legal restrictions, the agency cannot have its own unionized workforce. This isn’t unheard of in the transit industry, but Capital Metro’s president and CEO, Fred Gilliam, has a unique perspective on the situation since he has worked on both the public and private side when it comes to transit operations.