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New interim TransLink CEO will focus on customer service

February 19th, 2015 · 52 Comments

We’re all curious as to what this new interim CEO of TransLink might do, given that it was so important to bring him in a month for the transit plebiscite voting starts and to take the risk of adding more executive pay to the TransLink suite. Doug Allen was still getting briefed on a lot of things, so he didn’t have answers for everything yet (i.e. Can/will he do anything about executive compensation? Pondering. What is wrong with the Compass card implementation? Waiting to get the details, etc.) but you can get a sense of the kind of person he is from this condensed Q and A I had with him.

As you can likely tell from my questions, I was especially curious about whether his focus on the details of reality — customer service, escalators, cleanliness, procurement, etc. — will do anything to alter the perceptions that some people (especially drivers) have that TransLink is a fundamentally flawed organization.

A month ago, Doug Allen’s experience of TransLink consisted of three years’ running the private company that operates the Canada Line and many more years of taking transit around town.

Now, the 66-year-old former B.C. deputy minister, once given the task of straightening out British Columbia’s ferry system, is in charge of the whole $1.2-billion TransLink operation as voters prepare to vote starting March 16 on whether to support it with a new 0.5-per-cent sales tax for transit improvements.

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Mr. Allen was appointed the interim chief executive officer last Wednesday, at $35,000 a month, replacing Ian Jarvis. His job, according to board chair Marcella Szel: restore public confidence in TransLink while the board searches for a new permanent CEO. The Globe and Mail met with him after he’d been on the job for about 48 hours.

Who approached you to do this job?

The chair. It was a couple of weeks before the announcement.

Did you leap at it or did you at first think, ‘This is too big a mess for me to take on?’

Well, let’s put it this way: I thought about it very carefully. I happened to be out of town [in Australia] and my wife was with me, so we got a good chance to talk about it for a couple of days. We talked about the challenge and what I might be able to do and not be able to do.

When you come into a situation like this, what is it you’re looking for?

Well, I think there are a number of things. First of all, you have to meet the people involved. You have to sort out in your own mind what are the major priorities and are they on track and is everybody that should be involved accountable for what they’re doing.

When organizations go awry, is there a common dynamic?

In most cases, it boils down to people knowing what is expected and if we’re moving from A to B, what B actually is and what the strategy is to get there.

What’s your sense of TransLink?

I like the bus. I take the 84, the 4 and the 7. Those are my favourite lines. I take rapid transit as well, whether it’s the Expo Line or the Millennium Line or the Canada Line. The thing I like most is the whole concept of integration, which is essential to customer service. I don’t know all the details yet, I’m looking at the data, but that service is pretty darn good.

You must have looked at what’s gone on over the past three years and thought, ‘What are they thinking?’

Well, I don’t know about that, but I have a standard set of things I look at when I go into an organization in terms of how it’s functioning. In a big organization, you do spend a fair bit of time looking at procurement. Is it being done efficiently? Is it being done well? There are also some specific things that are much smaller but have a lot to do with customer service. I’m preoccupied with escalators and elevators. You know, you go into a station, and you find the escalator isn’t working, the elevator isn’t working – it’s a significant inconvenience for customers.

My sense is that it’s not the service levels that people are complaining about. It’s executive pay, bonuses, management competence, that kind of thing.

My focus is the service level. I read all this other stuff as well. I’m well aware of that. I have to stay focused on what the customer feels is good and what is not and we have to improve what is not.

But what you can you do, then, about the things that have really hit the media and made drivers, who don’t use the system, not confident about TransLink?

Maybe we get the drivers out of their cars and onto our system. That’s the big objective. You have to start by ensuring our service levels are improving.

Do you think the criticisms of TransLink are justified?

Until I finish my own assessment of where we are, I think it’s premature to answer that.

Can you do anything about executive pay or car allowances or is that up to the board?

There’s a combination of responsibilities there. The CEO of TransLink has a lot of responsibility related to compensation and a whole series of other things with respect to this organization.

What about Compass Card?

Well, it won’t surprise you that it’s one of my top priorities. And so I’m getting fully briefed now on all aspects of Compass.

Is there any chance the public will see any change by the time they start voting on March 16?

I hope by the time I finish, which is six months, there are a number of things the public will see which are better, both in terms of better service and the efficiencies that we have to extract in the process. My job is to get as strong a platform as possible for the new CEO.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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