After getting out of the Marine Corps in Vietnam and finishing up a Master’s degree in finance, Laurence (Larry) Jackson, now president and chief executive officer of Long Beach Transit (LBT), was unemployed. He said he and a buddy of his in the Master’s program in Irvine decided they were going to collect unemployment.
“I collected unemployment and they made me go on a job interview in Orange County for a consulting engineering firm,” Jackson says. “They wanted an economist.”
Jackson was an engineering undergraduate and had degrees in economics and finance in his background. The engineering firm worked on ports, highways, mass transit, nearly every mode of transportation. So while he was eventually intending on going back to Michigan to go work for General Motors or something, they made him a job offer he couldn’t refuse.
The engineering firm is no longer around, but Jackson says it was a great group of people to work with as it had attracted people from all over. He worked on a variety of transportation projects and one of them was an assignment in Long Beach. “The city asked me if I would come work for the city and the assignment was to straighten out the problems here at now Long Beach Transit, but it was Long Beach Public Transportation Company,” he says.
In about 1974, he had gotten a two-year assignment with the city. Long Beach Public Transportation Company had been de-certified to get federal and state grants, he says, because they weren’t following the rules of UMTA. “In a year I was done with that and said I’m going back to consulting.”
In 1976-77, the city asked if he wanted to stay on to work there, and that’s what he did. “I was like the chief administrative officer,” says Jackson. “So all these people who are here now, I have marketing, government relations, customer service — all the departments were like one or two people. That’s the way transit was back then.
“I was young and energetic and bright and I went from administration to transit operations in probably ’78 or ’79; and a year or so later the head of the company left and the board appointed me. I’ve been CEO for 32 years,” he states.
He says that time was very similar to where we’re at now. “All of us at my age are going to be retiring and that’s what happened back then. All the senior people in transit over a short period of time left.”
A One-Agency Career
While many in transit move around to various agencies or companies, Jackson has stayed at LBT for 32 years. And, he says, there’s a reason for that. “Most transit systems are governed by political boards and in and of themselves, are very, very unstable.”
“You’ll have the right side of the aisle that will say if people can’t afford to pay the full cost of riding the bus, let them walk. The other side will say it’s an essential public service and you should charge as little as possible.”
Jackson stresses, “That was the environment of transit and transit managers. You’re having to manage in that political environment.”
In Long Beach, it’s not that way. Long Beach Transit is a California non-profit corporation, so instead of being a transit district or a city department reporting to a city council, it has a seven-member board of directors consisting of people who live in the community who are looking to run a business. “We run this company more-so like a profit-driven business then you do a lot of the public agencies, and we don’t have a political board,” Jackson says. “They’re interested in results and the bottom line.”
Because of this, they’ve been able to avoid a lot of the turmoil that other agencies have seen. And, the system has grown from 8 million customers to nearly 28 million.
Jackson says, “The political pulls and tugs of so many of my colleagues, if you have to make tough decisions in a community, you usually get sideways with someone and the political winds change in terms of what the philosophy is of the elected officials.