Ask any reporter and they will tell you that some interviews are painfully difficult while others are incredibly easy. For me, the easy ones are where I don’t even have to look at my notes. I can just have a conversation with the person I am interviewing and let the course of the discussion steer the interview.
GO Transit’s CEO, Gary McNeil, was that kind of interview. He is forthright and honest when it comes to his views on transit and isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. A 1973 graduate of York University, McNeil went to work in the Ministry of Transportation (basically the Canadian equivalent to the highway department). He spent several years there before moving into environmental assessments before moving to Vancouver and working on the startup of the SkyTrain.
“That kind of launched me into really being actively involved in transit,” McNeil says. “At that stage of the project it was in its planning going into design stage, so I got involved in the planning and then I got involved in design, and then I got involved in construction and then I got involved in actual testing, commissioning and operations planning for the system. I was there for three to four years and it’s just kind of rolled since then.”
McNeil would eventually leave Vancouver and enter private consulting, but found that it was beginning to burn him out, “I was putting in 80-hour weeks in the consulting world and I saw no end in sight and an opportunity came up here at GO Transit.
“At the time I was looking for a change. I was getting tired of doing studies and never really seeing anything come through to fruition.
“So I really looked at the Greater Toronto Area and said this is probably where, if anything is going to happen in transit, this is where it is going to be, in the interregional transportation services.
“In my stint in the consulting world I had spent about six years with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) seconded into their program management team that was responsible with building the Shepherd Subways. So I knew an awful lot about what was going on in the TTC and its potential for growth was limited. 1) Because of so much money that was involved in subway construction and 2) because a lot of the new growth in the Toronto area was out in the 905 area, which is the development around the Toronto area — all of the suburban towns, which have all really grown together now. You can’t see one border to the next really; they’ve all just combined in together.”
McNeil came into GO Transit as the director of rail services, looking to work for Rick Ducharme, GO Transit CEO at the time, but that wasn’t going to last. Just three months after McNeil came onboard, Ducharme retired and eventually transitioned to become the TTC’s chief general manager. The GO CEO position remained vacant for several months, and McNeil never considered himself for the position until he was asked why he hadn’t applied yet.
“I didn’t put my name in it initially for the first go round because I had just been with the company about three months and I thought, no I’m not going to. After about two or three months they hadn’t selected anyone yet and the chair approached me and asked me why I hadn’t put my name in at least to be involved in the recruitment process or anything,” McNeil says.
“So I put my name in the hat. I guess they were looking to growing GO Transit at the time. We’d been through fairly … about a 10-year period of cutbacks and reductions here at GO Transit. And I guess the board was ready to grow and I had the right mix of the public sector and the private sector and I wanted to grow the organization and it must have clicked. Now seven years later I am still here, so hopefully it is still clicking.”
Since arriving in GO’s top spot, McNeil has looked at redirecting the company to expand and be as successful as possible, and that goal came down to one thing — focus.