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Featuring Tri Delta Transit’s Jeanne Krieg.

What’s the secret to successfully piloting a regional transit system serving millions of riders annually? For Tri Delta Transit (California) CEO Jeanne Krieg, it’s humility, a clear definition of priorities, and knowing that she has to live with every decision she makes.

Episode Transcript

Josh: Thanks so much for joining us today. My guest today is Jeanne Krieg, the CEO of Tri Delta Transit in northern California, so thank you for joining me.

Jeanne: Sure.

Josh: Let’s maybe start with your background. You’ve been at Tri Delta Transit for 20-plus years, and I’d love to get some context on how you got there and what it is that has led you to stay there for so long.

Jeanne: Yeah. I started at Tri Delta Transit 28 years ago almost to the day. Like many people in transit, I kind of fell into it. My background was sales and marketing. I have an undergraduate degree in marketing and an MBA that focused on television advertising.

Yeah, so I went into sales, which was a great beginning for anybody who’s thinking about starting a career. Sales is a great place to learn skills that you’ll need to be successful in life, in my opinion. I worked my way up to a national sales manager for a big publishing company, and that was just at the very beginning of electronic publishing. The particular publishing company that I worked for at the time didn’t see that as the future, and I knew what was coming, so I decided to find something else.

Also in my personal life, my husband and I had decided to start a family, and I was traveling all the time. I am a lifetime Platinum flyer on American Airlines because of those days. I flew millions of miles and decided, A, I didn’t want to travel anymore, because I wanted to do something different in my personal life, and B, the publishing industry wasn’t paying attention to what was going on. That kind of leads to today in transportation, but that’s later on.

So I was just looking for something that seemed to fit my background. That was back in the day when people put want ads in the newspaper, and in the Sunday paper, there was an ad for a director of marketing for the local transit agency. I knew nothing. I had never even been on a bus. I knew nothing about transit, but it intrigued me, so I submitted a letter and an application, went to a board meeting, just to see what they were about, and rode every one of the buses for every one of the routes to figure it all out. I still remember the first time I got on a bus and how frightening it was, so I think that served me for years. But became a part of a very small team at a very small agency and immediately saw the value of what we were doing and stayed all those years.

I just really like what we do. I’ve lived in or been to every one of the 50 states. My dad was a civil engineer and built many dams and highways and airports that we’ve all used, so I never really had a home and didn’t have that sense of community. That was the first thing that I got when I started at Tri Delta Transit was being a part of the community and not only just a part, an important part that contributes every day in a positive way to everybody in the community, whether they take the bus or not. That was a very long answer to your short question, but that’s how I got into transit.

Josh: So I think what’s interesting about your role there and your time at Tri Delta Transit is that you’ve been there that whole time. A lot of CEOs jump around and take the next biggest transit agency job. Sometimes that’s local. Sometimes that’s moving across the country, and you haven’t. You’ve been there this whole time. What about that community or what about Tri Delta Transit or maybe even your personality has led to that approach?

Jeanne: Well, the agency that exists today isn’t the one that was in existence in 1991. Regulations have changed. Technology has changed. Our community has changed. The system itself doesn’t look anything like what we were doing back then, so it’s not like I’m at the same agency. It just has the same name, and it’s been very exciting being a part of the growth.

I became the general manager in 1995 and CEO in 1999-ish, something like that. Every day I’m excited to come to work, and now that I’m getting close to an age that many people retire, people ask me when I’m going to retire. My answer is — and continues to be — the morning that I am not excited to put my feet on the floor to come to work, that’s the day I quit or that’s the day I retire, and that day isn’t even close.

It’s a very exciting place to be and lots of great things coming in the future in the technology, the way the work force and the… working with a different approach to life, really. It’s looking at the generational changes of what people want out of their career and their job, and I think that it’s better that there’s more focus on family and personal fulfilment and friends rather than just going for the gold ring and always going for the bigger, better, faster job.

Certainly, I’ve had many opportunities over the years to go to a bigger agency, to move, but that didn’t fit with my own personal priorities. I’ve always been clear on my priorities, and I’ve always worked toward those, and it’s worked for me.

Josh: Sure. I love that. How have you been able to integrate that philosophy into your work as CEO? Because of that piece of your personality, have you been able to structure the agency or make some decisions that are in line with that that also benefit other people in the organization or even in the community?

Jeanne: Oh, sure. Everyone who works here knows that it’s family first, and family takes priority over anything we do. Gee, my own kids — they’re grown now with kids of their own — but when I’d come back to work after dinner at night, they would come with me. They have memories of building forts in the boardroom, and we had back then video tapes but special video movies that they could only watch when I was at work.

I had a philosophy that I never took work home. If I had to work extra hours or had some project that I needed to finish, I would go home, have dinner with the family, and then come back. I would never take my work home. It was always done at the office, and I do that to this day. I have an office at home, but I don’t use it for work work. I come to work to do that. And I’m in my office probably 12 hours a day now, but the kids are grown. 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, but I really like it. It’s my home away from home, but all the employees know that if something comes up with their family, that’s what they are expected to tend to.

I think that that makes a very loyal workforce. We have very little turnover — very, very little turnover. The folks that work here, we all work together, and this is our other family. We all have families at home, but this is our other family, and the family-first attitude is… We work with our family, too, so put your coworkers at the top of your list of priorities.

Josh: Have you had to have any hard decisions that have had to come up because of that? I can see a situation where you’ve got an operator who needs to take care of a sick child, but that means you may be short a run that day, or your substitute operator is out for something and you haven’t been able to meet the needs to the communities because they’re expecting a bus to show up at 7:15. Have you had any hard decisions like that that you’ve had to navigate because of that?

Jeanne: Well, sure, and there’s always individuals who take advantage, or they play the system. And they don’t last long. They realize that they don’t fit. Reality takes priority, and we are expected to provide a service every day in our community. And we do a pretty good job at it.

Josh: Yeah. You mentioned that you have less turnover than others. Do you feel like your approach has led to making it a little bit easier to attract some of those folks that are looking for a little bit different environment?

Jeanne: When there are openings, yes. We don’t have many openings, but when we do, we get a lot of relatives or friends of people who work here. That makes it more of a family. I’ve got an aunt, two brothers, and a cousin all working in administration. I just learned one of our mechanics is related to our receptionist. I didn’t know that. I just learned that yesterday. So there’s a lot of family, real family, here, so it kind of spills over.

Josh: That’s interesting. So reflecting on your time as CEO, what are you most proud of accomplishing during that time?

Jeanne: Growing this agency from being a second thought, not even thought of by the community leaders, to being a strong, vibrant part of our entire community. People are proud to work here. I’m proud to work here. It’s just gratifying to be seen as an important player in the community and in the quality of life part of our community.

Josh: That evolution on the community leader side, that sounds interesting to me because obviously that is critical for a local transit agency to have the support of their local stakeholders like that. Tell me a little bit about how you were able to accomplish that.

Jeanne: Well, it started when I started at Tri Delta Transit, and in my attempt to learn more about what we do because I didn’t come from transit. I had no idea what it was we were expected to do or how we were seen. I became super involved in the community. I’m still a member of Rotary. I was on the chamber board of directors. I was on the hospital board of directors. I got myself involved in the community so I could learn what the regular folks expected and how they saw us.

I think that really paid off, those early years of event after event after event, speech after speech after speech, and just really getting out there. Now I’ve been in this job long enough and the agency has been around long enough that people know who I am, know who we are, and I don’t have to force myself into situations anymore, so it’s a little bit easier to be a part of the community and to be seen as an important part of the community.

But I still invite groups in to have lunch in the boardroom and tour the facility because who doesn’t like going through a bus yard? You don’t have an opportunity to do that. People get excited to see a bus go through a bus wash or go into the shop and see it up on a lift. So getting people excited about the day-to-day things that we find pretty normal but an outsider gets excited about… I love bringing kids in and putting them on a bus and running it through the bus wash. We do that a lot from preschool programs.

Josh: That’s good. I like that. The theme that I’m seeing here — both from when you started with that interview process with going to the board meetings and riding on the buses to this experience with when you started as CEO with going to all the community events and so forth — is humility, it sounds like, which is not trying to argue that you knew it all but, in fact, going out there with a learning mindset and trying to figure out how much you could learn and what you could learn from these other folks who were integral parts of the community, as well, and to see then how transit can help them.

Jeanne: Well, one of the greatest parts about this industry is there’s always something to learn. For example, recently I was chatting with a woman who was training a guide dog puppy and learned that they try to expose these puppies to everything. So I invited her and her group in to train on a bus so the puppies could get used to the noises and the feelings and the smells of a bus. It was a great learning opportunity for us because we deal with service animals and for them to train their puppies to ride a bus without being afraid. So there’s something new all the time.

Josh: Yeah, and I guess I love that mindset more than anything else. I can see, in many other transit agencies, obviously, they’re never going to not deny service, certainly, because of someone’s need for a service animal, but at the same time, they wouldn’t necessarily maybe be as welcoming to help with the training which it sounds like you might. Again, it just seems like this approach of humility and wanting to help the community really shines through in all of the different ways that you act as CEO. So I think that that’s exciting to see.

Jeanne: I think it’s more of just having an open mind. I never say no. I can always say no later or “I changed my mind,” but I rarely say no, just because I don’t want to miss out. There might be something cool that I miss if I say no.

Josh: So thinking about your role as CEO now, where are you putting your energy as you think about your days and think about your weeks and months?

Jeanne: I spend a lot of time making sure that the employees have what they need to do their job. In the olden days, they called it management by walking around. You’re probably too young to remember that, but that was a big deal.

Josh: No, I’m familiar.

Jeanne: That was a big deal the last century. But I still do that. I just wander around and make sure people have what they need to do to do their job, and then in chatting with people, I come up with different ideas. For example, this morning, I spent quite a bit of time discussing deployment of electric buses on a particular route, and I learned a lot about what happens in the middle of the night when the buses are assigned on the bus board by the maintenance department. And the night supervisor, at midnight — I didn’t know they did this because I’m never here at midnight — but there’s this procedure they go through.

So I learned a lot about that. Then I was able to take all that information, and I spent probably an hour and a half on an email with my direction on how I want the electric buses deployed. The people who are making those decisions didn’t have all the information, and I learned that by talking it through with them, and now everybody’s on the same page.

Because sometimes people don’t understand. For example, the operations manager thought our goal was just to use the electric buses once in a while, where the maintenance person thought it was to use it until we run them to empty to see how far they’ll go. I have the grant that requires me to use it on the particular route, and all those three pieces of information needed to be together to make the right plan.

Josh: Yep. Yeah, that makes sense. Let’s maybe pivot a little bit towards a more broader topic, which is what’s going on in the transportation and mobility space. I mean, obviously it’s changed a lot in the last 20 years and even since before that, since when you were working in the industry.

I was talking to a gentleman in the industry who’s been in the industry for a long time, and he mentioned that transit’s fun again. He said it was fun in the ‘70s when we had the gas crunch, and then we had a slog for a while, and now it’s fun again, which may be an overstatement, but I think it certainly is dynamic right now. I guess my question for you is, where do you think all this is going?

Jeanne: The sky’s the limit. It’s very exciting, and I have to agree, it is fun again, but it’s always been fun for me. 20 years ago, I could not imagine holding a computer in my hand with the power that my phone has, my cell phone. I’m thinking 20 years from now I probably can’t even imagine what our transportation network is going to look like.

I would like to, in my wildest dreams, and everything from flying cars to teleporting to who knows. Who knows? As long as we keep an open mind and never say no, just give anything a try. We’ve got an Uber, Lyft, taxi program going. We’re working with Medi-Cal for medical trips. I mean, we’re just trying to do a little bit of everything and not be reactionary but be proactive. Use the technology to its best. I would say that’s our biggest weakness is there’s so much technology. We get so many reports that we don’t use, and that’s my frustration right now, is how am I going to use all this information we’re getting? Because it’s great information. It’s interesting.

Josh: Yeah. I think that’s part of the downside of all the technology and if you don’t even have the time to even look at all those reports, it kind of…

Jeanne: It’s not necessarily the time. It’s just which direction do you look at it from?

Josh: Yeah. That’s true. That’s true. No, I do think you’re right. That trying to think 20 years out, it almost boggles the mind to really think about that. I think it still blows me away just that the iPhone is, I think, 10 or 11 years old now and just trying to think about what it was like before that was around.

Jeanne: Yeah, and I mean the smart houses. All these Google Home and…

Josh: Alexa. Yeah.

Jeanne: Alexa and all that. That technology is going to take over everything. I can open and close my gate at my home from my phone because of Google Home. I can open and close my garage doors. I can turn off and on all the lights. It’s just taking that idea of technology and putting it in the transportation industry. It’s just mind-boggling what we can do.

Josh: Thinking about your role, what’s the balance between vision from you and other community leaders and what the community wants at an individual level?

Jeanne: That’s a really good question. If you would’ve come to me 20 years ago, 15 years ago, even 10 years ago, and told me I could have a phone that does all the things that the phone I currently have does, I would’ve said, “I don’t need that. I’ve got my laptop. I’ve got a fax machine. I don’t need any of that. Why would I want that? Why would I need that?” The same holds true for the Google Home technology. I don’t need that, but wow, it sure makes life interesting and opens many more possibilities.

I think if the new technology and new ways of doing things are presented in the right way that the community would embrace it… Look at how quickly Uber and Lyft took off. We didn’t even know those words five years ago.

Josh: Yeah. It’s interesting to figure out, because I guess the thing I keep coming back to is that at an individual, say, technology company level, they can do what’s best for themselves. They can create a feature or a product that would benefit some group of people. But how that all fits together into a community, and again, you brought up Uber and Lyft, and that’s a great example. The transportation industry right now is trying to navigate the impact of Uber and Lyft in their communities. It might be on ridership. It might be on traffic congestion. It also is on ways that make it easier to live a car-lite lifestyle. I think there’s pluses and minuses to the TNCs like Uber and Lyft, but it’s like that impact it has on the community is one that’s a little bit harder to navigate at scale.

Jeanne: There’s a growing conversation about how we measure our success. In the past, we’ve always measured our success by — well, a lot of things — but one of the measurements has been the number of people we carry on the buses. And there’s a conversation that’s evolving, saying, perhaps we should take a look at how we affect congestion and land management and quality of life issues that we currently don’t really look at or measure. But I think that how we measure our success is going to change.

Josh: Yeah. No, and I think it should. It almost seems like measuring it on some of those items you mentioned — land use, congestion, and so forth — those are actually getting at the real-world things that we all care about. When you have to report your ridership data to the FTA, that obviously is an easily collected number, but it doesn’t really show the impact that you necessarily want to have on the community. You can easily see that you carried X number of butts in seats, but you don’t really understand what does that actually mean as far as the work we’re providing in the community and how we’re enabling people to have access to jobs and how we’re enabling emissions to go down and so forth, all of which are going to lead to that green, accessible, equitable future that we all want.

Jeanne: One of the first things I learned when I started studying marketing is a product doesn’t have just one reason that you buy it. It’s price. It’s the packaging. It’s the distribution. It’s all of these elements that go into one product, and you can’t just take one of those items and say you have a successful product. You could have the best price for your coffee or whatever you’re selling, but if you don’t get it in the right distribution channels, you’re not going to be successful.

And it’s the same for us. There’s many elements that we need to consider as we provide a community service, and we need to open our minds and not just look at how many people we get on our bus and how much money we spend per mile and per passenger. There’s many other features, many other benefits, to public transportation that we should be considering.

I can see that coming. Right now, there’s so many regulations in place that restrict us. We have to comply with certain regulations or we don’t get our funding, and that kind of slows us down a little bit.

Josh: Yeah. To me, it seems like a lot of those regulations are in place for some of the bad actors that ruin it for everyone else. I think if you didn’t have to deal with some of those regulations, you would be able to do a lot of really neat things there. You’re already doing great things, but I think if you remove some of that overhead, I think that would give you a little bit more freedom.

Jeanne: Yep. And the reporting requirements… Ay yi yi.

Josh: Let me bridge maybe these topics a little bit — in between what’s going on in the transportation and mobility space at a high level and what your personal background is — and maybe talk about risk-taking a little bit. Seems to be this perception that in the public sphere risk-taking is not as well received or well regarded, that there’s a high risk to fail if you’re in the public eye. I’m curious about that because I think that part of the reason why there’s some of this interest in public-private partnerships and in the private sector is because the private sector is more willing to take risks and has to take risks based on their business model.

Jeanne: Well, that’s the evolution of the world as we live in it. Considering and accepting risk is… The post office, for example, they’re taking on a huge risk by becoming a subcontractor with Amazon. You wouldn’t have thought that they would even consider that, but if they don’t take on some of that risk, they’re not going to survive. Transportation is in the same boat right now. If we don’t take on risk, we’re not going to survive, and what that risk looks like and how much risk it is, that really depends on the local economy, the local political environment.

In my community, our community expects us to be creative and meet their needs. Partnering with Uber and Lyft, that’s a risk, and doing this Medi-Cal service that we’re doing, that’s a risk. Trying to allow our Paratransit customers to do more online interaction with us, that’s a risk. There’s a lot that we’re doing that could be considered a risk, but we calculate our risk. We haven’t started helicopter service. That would be a huge risk, and that would be dumb and silly. But there are things that are risky but make sense.

Josh: Sure, and it sounds like one of the benefits of being in the job for 20-plus years is that you’ve built up some equity there so that if you do try something and it doesn’t go as well as you would like, that you have some built-in equity that you can draw from there. It sounds like that’s…

Jeanne: Yeah. It could be seen as a downside, but that’s one of the benefits to being in this job so long, is I know the decisions I make I have to live with.

Josh: Yeah. I think that’s maybe a great place to end this, just with that summation on the long-term impact and long-term perspective of you taking as that CEO that’s been there and plans to be there for a little while longer as you continue to enjoy getting up and going into work every day.

Jeanne: Yeah. It’s a great life.

Josh: Well, thank you so much, Jeanne. I really appreciate you taking the time today and best of luck with your work there at Tri Delta Transit.

Jeanne: Thank you very much.

Josh: Alright. Talk to you soon.

Jeanne: Bye.