“I think the benefit of me working for the private side is that I know what it means to bring it to the bottom line,” Gilliam says. “I know that it’s important to make a profit, but also I was taught that you’ve got to make sure you give value for what you’re doing.
“So you’re charging a fee for your services and you don’t get renewals and you don’t get repeat business unless you give value to it.
“So that in itself, I mean, it makes you think a little bit differently. And on the public side it relates to the private side, too. You’re serving the public. And so every taxpayer regardless, every taxpayer is your customer. And whether they are riding or not, they are still your customer.”
Gilliam says it’s this balance between making a profit and providing a valued service to the riders. As he pointed out to me, while not every customer is right, most don’t complain to you unless there’s a reason. But that has to be balanced against maintaining the budget.
“You have to figure out ways to constantly be trying to satisfy the customer but on the other side you’ve got a budget. But many times on the public side that budget can be amended and there is a little bit more flexibility. It’s not like a sin if you go over the budget in many cases,” Gilliam says.
“On the private side it sort of is a sin if you’re going to go over the budget.”
Gilliam says a blend of experience helps, with people switching from either side having trouble on the opposite. A person moving from the public to the private may have trouble hitting that bottom line, while a person moving from the private to the public may attempt to do more with less to be budget conscious, both with less than stellar results for the agency.
“It’s sort of an art in one way, working in both arenas, but it’s ... I mean it’s not that complex, but ... everybody can’t do it,” Gilliam says.
“Everybody can’t be a bus driver either or a mechanic. Some people try and some people decide early on that they’re not cut out for bus driver or mechanic and then you have folks who continue to try and continue to screw up.”
The transit industry is unique from other businesses in a lot of ways. One of them is the relationship between OEMs and agencies. Fred Gilliam has the catbird seat so to speak in this relationship having worked for both in his long transit career. What has that given him? An insight and appreciation into both aspects of the business.
“It made me appreciate as much as anything, what the manufacturers go through in trying to sell,” Gilliam says about his time working for Chance Coach.
“It opened my eyes in the sense that there are times when people are making sales calls, they don’t always get in to see who the key decision makers are. I didn’t experience that but what I was told by some of the same folks I visited, had it not been me, if it had just been someone else, they probably wouldn’t have given me the same courtesy. That made me aware of that and it also told me that I had at least earned the trust and respect of the individuals I was dealing with and I was very grateful for that.
“But it also made me aware of the manufacturing issues. There’s a lot of time, money and effort put into each bid. Just trying to do your homework and trying to understand what the solicitation is.”
Gilliam says there is a tremendous amount of anxiety in making sure a bus manufacturer has a sufficient amount of backlog in orders to keep the plant going, not only in making sure it has the correct amount of raw materials, but also in the number of changes agencies request.
“Each vehicle was sort of custom made if you will for that individual,” Gilliam says.
“When it required engineering changes, our engineering department was very serious about making sure it was properly vetted and calibrated and calculated and whatever, because we were assuming a 12-year life primarily for that and making sure that the liability was not going to increase and therefore causing our insurance to go up and just all kinds of things.