Successfully running a public sector transportation organization takes an understanding of how to run a private business, says Terry Garcia Crews, CEO/GM of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA). She has been at the Cincinnati-based transportation organization for less than a year, but only after a track that gained her comprehensive experience in the private sector.
While obtaining her bachelor's in business administration, Garcia Crews landed her first job as an assistant in a consumer finance company, and then, she became a legal secretary. But through most of college, she hustled weekend nights as an administrative assistant at a hospital.
Upon graduating in the 1980s, Garcia Crews found herself relocating to Phoenix, where she entered the banking industry as an affirmative action analyst. Within six months, she was promoted into bank marketing and generated around $1.3 million for Arizona Bank.
"This experience allowed me to understand the business world, and that was extremely valuable because that's where you learn about the bottom line, return on investments, the possibility picture," she says. "In my perspective that's really what has helped in my career today."
After more than three years in banking, Garcia Crews didn't like the uncertainty as different banks were acquisitioned, and that's when she found an opportunity at Sun Tran as a marketing director. She spent 13 years at Sun Tran in this position, until she went to Pima County as the community information administrator.
Garcia Crews knew at this point that she enjoyed engaging in community outreach and media relations, but she only stayed at Pima County for about a year. "I realized that the political environment can be pretty tough," she says, and so she started her own marketing, advertising and public relations company. Her niche was in public transportation and city governments, and she gained clients nationally.
After almost four years into her company, Sun Tran asked Garcia Crews back as assistant GM, where she stayed for about six years. She then jumped across states to be the interim GM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She could have made it permanent, but this Southwest woman couldn't handle the winter temperatures and headed to Lexington, Ky., as GM/CEO of LexTran. Within four years, she was recruited as president and CEO of Star Tran in Austin, Texas.
Garcia Crews' journey wasn't over yet. After more than two years at Star Tran, she transitioned to Cincinnati as GM and CEO of SORTA.
"One thing most of all is that it was primarily Professional Transit Management that gave me the opportunity to step up and move up," she says.
With all the different paths that drew her to where she is now, Garcia Crews didn't leave any agency unmarked. At Lexington, for example, she helped to stabilize the finances through a tax initiative. With the help of government officials, she gained the support of the community in a property tax that benefited LexTran, which at the time had no designated funding.
Since aligning with SORTA last year, Garcia Crews is starting the "Getting Back to Basics" campaign, where she and the board are honing in on several areas for improvement. She began the campaign by spending time with employees, getting comment cards and other forms of input.
"Typically going into a new organization I'll look at it from a private sector mindset," she explains. "I ask myself, 'What's the bottom line and how do we hold our accountability to the taxpayers?' "