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Tolling Points

Leadership in Unprecedented Times: 'I Like a Complicated Challenge,' Johnson Says

By: 
Bill Cramer

Bill Cramer, Communications Director, IBTTA, recently sat down with Samuel Johnson, Interim CEO of the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) in California and President of IBTTA, to discuss the dual challenge of leading an international transportation association and guiding one of the nation’s busiest tolling agencies through an unprecedented moment of crisis. Spoiler: It helps to be someone who enjoys a tough, complicated assignment.

There is nothing like being busy! How are you balancing your responsibilities as Interim CEO of The Toll Roads and President of IBTTA?

It’s a lot of work. My days are definitely longer and they kind of blur together at some points. But I’ve been really fortunate that we have a lot of talented, hard-working folks in both organizations who are stepping up to help me. As you can imagine, I’ve had to focus on my TCA duties, so the talent within IBTTA has really been helpful. That’s where I’ve seen our family culture really thrive in the way we support each other.

I also know that the global relationships I’ve been able to foster through IBTTA have never been more important and beneficial to me than they are right now: the words of encouragement, and the access I have to advice within the industry, are helping me in my new role and keeping me smiling.

Given the moment of crisis we’re facing, what are your first priorities for TCA?

Like everyone, our top priority right now is the health of our customers, our employees, their families, and our community, ensuring that our people have a safe way to care for themselves and their loved ones, but also being able to contribute to our Agencies. That’s a physical and mental challenge, and I’m really proud of how well our TCA team is doing.

Another challenge is the economic aspect of the pandemic. We are fortunate that TCA made some really smart moves over the last few years in how we manage our debt, and how we have been reducing our costs while increasing ridership and more than doubling our customer base. That combination has given us a really solid financial profile to weather this storm, but we aren’t taking it for granted. We’re still going to be very fiscally prudent, working with our two boards of directors to baseline our budgets down to core necessities, defer discretionary expenses, and delay some capital projects.

What has struck you the most about IBTTA’s response to the pandemic so far?

As I noted, we’ve got some really talented, hard-working people on the IBTTA staff, and it’s been amazing to watch and to participate in IBTTA’s overnight transformation in the way we deliver value to our members, not only retaining that value, but actually enhancing it. Our ability and track record for convening thought leaders to exchange ideas and best practices is just as good now as when we could hold in-person conferences, and I see a really bright future for us in combining the two.

IBTTA’s ability to step up to the challenges now is going to reap tons of rewards down the road when we all do see brighter days. The team’s effort to incorporate new platforms, like the one we were using on a video meeting this morning, with people from around the globe, is enabling us to connect in a safe way and still capture some of the things we appreciate about in-person interactions, those non-verbal cues that can convey a message that is a lot stronger than words.

The use of these tools is bolstered by our most valued asset, our culture of family and member engagement. The support, optimism and forward-looking discussion in these meetings has been very uplifting for me and helped develop thoughts for TCA’s future.

Do you see these virtual platforms driving value for IBTTA member organizations?

The combination of virtual and in-person meetings will make our organization and our industry so much stronger. Already, our young professionals and our communications specialists are telling us that virtual meetings are extremely popular. Our member agencies are excited about the ability to get more of their staff at different levels of their organization involved. These are people who may not be able to travel to a meeting. This means the IBTTA family is growing. It is going to be very exciting to see the couple thousands of professionals who attend conferences annually multiply and significantly increase the number of people ho get to play an active role in IBTTA throughout the year, and to drive our value much deeper into member organizations.

While no one knows how the course of the pandemic will unfold, there’s mounting pressure to reopen the economy. How is TCA preparing for that time and what can toll agencies worldwide do to best prepare?

We’re being very strategic in how we plan for our future and the steps we’re taking now. We really want to be pound wise rather than penny foolish. We know the economy will come back, so we need to make investments now to make sure we have a good operational and capital plan, because those investments will reap benefits.

We’re having tough conversations with our consultants and contractors, who understand that the tough times make you appreciate the good times even more, and we want them to know we value their partnerships and will need them in the future, even though we’re having to scale things back right now. We also want to make sure our community knows that we’re here for them now in other ways, supporting them and doing what we can, and that we’ll be here when it’s time to get back on the road.

The overall industry should stand ready to be the economic engine that user-financed transportation is known for. Our ability to attract investment and put people to work is a great opportunity, and a responsibility that we should look forward to.

What was your biggest epiphany or ah-ha moment from the last six to eight weeks?

We started out this year with The Road to Continued Excellence as our theme. It was kind of a bold statement, and our intent was to drive the message that we’ll succeed in the future by following a different path than we have in the past. Our experience in this global pandemic has definitely rung true with that theme, and it’s a lot of what we’re talking about within IBTTA, going overnight from an in-person to a virtual convenor of the thought leaders who will drive our future.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve had several inward- and outward-looking affirmations. The first is that I really do like challenges. I’m not afraid to take on complicated work—I enjoy it. I’ve also learned that, unfortunately, the perfect storms we see in movies do exist.  I’ve assumed this leadership role in the middle of a health pandemic and economic recession, with limited confidence in the accuracy of our traffic and revenue projections and having to develop a budget that pleases two separate boards of directors. It’s a really complicated environment. And I’m really enjoying it. I got a different perspective on the saying “leadership is lonely,” as my first day on the job was in an empty building that normally has about 250 people in it.

Probably my second affirmation would be that IBTTA is really as good of an organization as I believed it to be. And third, looking even broader, is that in the face of the most extreme adversity, our ability to come together as a united people and as a global community has just been remarkable.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I know everybody is getting a little antsy. Cabin fever is kicking in strong, and we’ve got some challenges on the economic side. But we’re still facing a health challenge, as well. So I just hope everyone is doing all they can to keep themselves and their families physically and mentally healthy, being optimistic about our brighter days to come, and hoping we can figure out ways to stay the path and stay healthy, both medically and from an economic perspective.

Bookmark IBTTA’s coronavirus page and make it one of your go-to resources for updates on the pandemic.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - 10:45

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