February 16, 2009
A Conversation with HART's David Armijo: Part 1 of 2
By DOUG EADIE
The Board of Directors of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) in Tampa, FL, named David Armijo HART’s chief executive officer in August 2007. HART is a multi-modal system of local and express bus routes, paratransit service for the elderly and mobility impaired, and the TECO Line Streetcar System, combining for more than 13 million passengers in 2008. David oversees the agency’s 734 employees, a fleet of 235 vehicles, and a total capital and operating budget of $117 million.
David’s more than 25 years of experience in the transportation industry includes the startup of rail projects in Los Angeles and Dallas and development from the ground up of the system in Santa Fe, NM. His multi-faceted background also includes managing toll roads in Orange County, CA, and the Red Cross fleet in San Diego.
Since coming to Tampa Bay, David has balanced HART’s budget and is leading the agency into a new phase of growth, with major projects like the Bus Rapid Transit system, an extension of the streetcar line into downtown Tampa, and improved service to Tampa International Airport to be implemented in the next two years.
David is a member of the Board of Directors of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He serves on APTA’s Bus, Rail, and Legislative committees and the American Public Transportation Foundation Board of Directors.
I recently spent a half-day with David, discussing his work as HART’s CEO. This and my next column summarize David’s comments.
Doug: As you look down the road a bit, David, what do you see as the strategic issues facing HART that deserve your close attention as the agency’s CEO?
David: You should know, Doug, that I had my eye on the Tampa Bay region for a decade before I was chosen to head HART. I saw a region whose growth and development guaranteed it a place among the elite of metropolitan areas in the United States, and I couldn’t be more pleased to be here.
Above all else, Doug, we’re at the tipping point here in Tampa Bay. The HART board and I, along with HART staff and key stakeholders in the community, have a tremendous opportunity to take an already excellent agency to the next level: to go from really good to truly great. It’s a privilege—and really exciting—to play a leadership role in helping to ensure that HART realizes its tremendous promise, putting a comprehensive transportation system in place to meet rapidly growing demand. (Ridership has increased 7 percent annually for seven years and growth is accelerating, while traffic gridlock in the region has become an ever-greater nightmare!)
So we’re poised to grow dramatically here in Tampa Bay, expanding our services to include Bus Rapid Transit and eventually light rail. The future’s bright, but we’ve got to focus on generating the dollars to finance system expansion.
In that regard, to be honest, HART, which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, traditionally hasn’t been aggressive in seeking taxpayer support for public transportation here in Tampa Bay—primarily, I think, because we’ve lacked a comprehensive, inspiring vision to share with the community. Well, the past is the past, and with a clear vision for the future in hand, the leadership of the HART board’s Revenue Alternatives Task Force, and strong stakeholder support—most notably from Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio—we’re preparing for a sales tax referendum in 2010.
So system expansion and related revenue enhancement top my strategic list as HART’s CEO, but I’m also spending substantial time in building internal executive management capacity.
As you well know, Doug, systems aren’t merely physical infrastructure and equipment. More than anything else, HART is people, and the effectiveness of our executive management will be a huge factor in our ultimate success as a transportation system. So I’ve spent a tremendous amount of my time putting a new layer of executive managers in place, to ensure leadership and oversight in such key areas as construction, procurement, strategic planning, and human resource management.
I know what you’re probably thinking, Doug: Isn’t this a big deviation from the popular notion that flat organizations are most effective? You’re right, I’m anything but politically correct where the flat-is-good philosophy is concerned. Twenty-five years in the business have taught me, among other things, that you’ve got to have really top-notch executives in place to provide hands-on leadership and direction for critical functions—that is, if you intend to grow while also efficiently managing operations. To my way of thinking, one of my foremost challenges as CEO of HART is organizational development, and a huge piece of that is executive capacity building.
Doug: What executive leadership attributes and skills do you think are most critical in your success as HART’s CEO?
David: There’s one attribute, Doug, that tops the list, in my opinion: integrity. What I mean is following through on promises—walking the talk.
If people inside and outside HART can’t take me at my word as HART’s CEO, then I’ll be far less effective as a community leader and partner with my board in leading HART into the future. So I never, ever make promises that I don’t intend to keep.
Strategic planning is an obviously critical CEO skill, and I’ve worked closely with my board to implement a process that has resulted in a clear vision for the future and detailed strategies for getting there. We’ve made sure that the board is in the strategic driver’s seat, taking the lead in fashioning our plans for the future, rather than just passively reacting to finished plans that staff produce.
I really do take seriously the idea of a Strategic Leadership Team that includes the board, CEO, and top executives, working hand-in-hand in setting strategic directions. Another skill that I’ve worked hard to develop and hone over the years is stakeholder relations, which, of course, involves a big dollop of communication. There’s no way HART can build community support for adequate funding for system expansion without the enthusiastic support of key stakeholders like the Tampa Mayor and Council and the Hillsborough County Commission.
Doug Eadie is president & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company. You can reach Doug here.