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Small Beginnings: 5 Lessons From a Humble Operation

Paul Comfort
Paul Comfort

You learn the most when you take on more responsibilities in a small business.

The year was 1987, and I had just started my first job out of college, as transportation coordinator for the Queen Anne's County Department of Aging. My boss, C. Irving Pinder, had asked me to take on this brand-new role managing the vans and drivers to take folks to the senior centers and doctors. It had become enough work to require a separate oversight position.

While my newly minted bachelor's degree in history didn't do much to prepare me for this role, I never planned on making a career around my college major. I just studied what I loved (history, political science, music and media) and figured I was smart enough to get a good job helping people, most likely in government. This new position fit that bill, and I set about learning all there was to know about the passenger transportation business and working to make my small operation the best it could be.

When I started, we had small bus transportation for three county senior centers and several vans and minivans to take senior citizens to the doctor and other important appointments. Our service was funded by a combination of grant funds from the state and federal government and local county dollars, plus donations and later fares, funneled through the Maryland Department of Transportation's Mass Transit Administration (MTA). Our total budget was a whopping $250,000 annually, which included my yearly salary of $14,876.

So, what did I learn?

1. When you start small, you have to do a bit of everything – especially the paperwork.

It turned out there was a lot of work to do to run this small operation. It required annual grant applications to complete for these state and federal funds and regular operational statistics reports, so I did those. We had regular quarterly visits from the MTA's regional representatives, who reviewed our finance and operational statistics and gave internal guidance to us, so I handled those. We also had to develop a three-year Transportation Development Plan, which I did. We had to apply for operational authority regularly from another state agency called the Maryland Public Service Commission that also did annual inspections on our vehicles, which I coordinated.   

Then there were the county-required reports, including monthly statistics on operations (passengers, hours, miles, etc.), annual budget requests, human resources and finance reports. I learned how to complete all these reports and personally followed up with staff in those internal departments as needed. 

2. Don't shy away from the numbers – learn them so you understand how your business operates.

Learning how to budget and report finances appropriately for the service at this hands-on level was invaluable. I learned little lessons like how budgets for salaries needed to include 7.65 percent for the employer share of Social Security, and how much to include for the employer side of state and federal unemployment tax and workers' comp. Because there was no one else to do it, I learned Lotus 1-2-3 accounting software so I could upload our budgets and reports to the county budget. Later in life, I was able to understand the mechanics of much larger budgets through the lessons I learned about handling those with fewer zeros. 

The same can be true for you in whatever functions you perform at your current job. Learning all there is to learn at a small operation is often better than only having a small part in a big operation. You can get exposure to many more responsibilities and learn them well with fewer zeros in the budget. Then you will be able to extrapolate what you learned there to a larger operation with a big budget.

I had to create forms and processes to gather operational data from the drivers and then combine the numbers for our overall reporting on key performance indicators like fuel used, passenger counts, and daily, weekly and monthly mileage. Learning what worked well and didn't from these hands-on procedures was invaluable later when I had hundreds and then thousands of employees to manage. 

My advice is to not shy away from these numbers-driven components of your job. Even if you don't consider yourself a numbers person, a deep understanding of these KPIs and what drives them is essential to leading performance improvement. You can learn these better in a smaller operation where you can get hands-on experience than at a big operation where duties are often performed in silos and you cannot cross boundaries easily. Ask how you can help with these duties that others often do not want to do, such as operational and financial reporting. It's like becoming the secretary/treasurer of your club: You do most of the work, and you get to know the inner workings of the operation and eventually have a real say in how it should run.   

3. Look for opportunities to grow and improve your business, then do the leg work.

I had one dispatcher for the service, and I also wanted to grow. I applied for and was granted authority to begin providing medical assistance (MA) transportation for low-income passengers. This was a way to serve more people and grow our budget, but the paperwork and procedures were a lot. For example, we had to call a special phone number every morning before service began and dial in each MA passenger's ID number to ensure they were still eligible that day for service. If you are in a position to do so, why not try to grab more operations and grow your business? 

I also wanted to improve our service operationally, so I made contracts with local maintenance garages and switched our vehicle maintenance to them away from the county Department of Public Works (DPW) garage, which always seemed to place a low priority on our work in favor of its dump trucks and the sheriff's vehicles. We also created a simple scheduling and dispatching software as our passenger counts grew beyond our ability to handle the manual scheduling. We purchased 800 MgH radios after receiving the appropriate approvals. We researched and purchased fare boxes and wheelchair lifts for the vehicles. 

Do not be afraid to change things up if they are not working well for your operation. If you are not in a position to make changes yourself, you can show your supervisor the potential savings or operational improvement you see. Even if they don't approve your recommendations, they will see you as a bright, motivated member of their team and probably start including you more in strategy meetings.

We grew the service again by starting a public transportation system called County Ride. I personally developed all the routes, put up the bus stop signs with the help of our DPW, purchased and inspected the vehicles, hired and trained the drivers, conducted the required public hearings on the routes, developed the paper schedules, put together artwork and an advertising campaign, and set up the launch party. In other words, I did nearly every function required to start a public bus system, just on a very small scale. 

Figure out what your operation needs to make improvements and push for them. No one ever made something great by accepting the mediocre way things are. Go to conferences if you can and check out the trade shows. See what technological advances are being made that could assist your operation. See if vendors would be willing to pilot their products or services at your operation. Check out available grants to fund your desired improvements, even if they are outside the norm. For example, you might find Emergency Services grants available for better radios or human service grants for software. Be on the lookout for special one-time grants. Think outside the box and talk with your colleagues from other local departments. 

4. Own your work. Be the boss of your career.

I loved every minute of it. My boss let me own it from top to bottom. Later, when I wanted to expand the service to include weekends, he even let me raise the local grant-match funds (which the county didn't have) by soliciting and receiving donations from 50 local businesses to start the Shore Shopper Shuttle.

Do not be afraid to push for what you want. Be like the young Johnny Cash, who, after several rejections, just went and sat on Sam Phillips' Sun Records doorstep early one morning, waiting for him to arrive. When he did, Johnny stood up and said, "Mr. Phillips, sir, if you listen to me, you'll be glad you did." That was the start of a beautiful career in music. 

5. Start small, learn it all, and apply your knowledge to bigger opportunities.

Through it all, I learned a lot. With the help of a tremendous team – of mostly senior citizen drivers and several awesome dispatchers – we grew a transportation service that won top honors several times at our state association and then, in 1991, national recognition from the Community Transportation Association of America as America's Community Transportation System of the Year.

From those hands-on experiences, I learned what it required to operate public transportation successfully and transferred those lessons to progressively larger, even massive operations. Because I knew what it took, I could teach those who oversaw those functions in larger operations, and very few could pull the wool over my eyes.

So I say focus and really learn your functions wherever you are, either with more responsibilities in a small system or with limited functions in a larger one. Learning on a smaller scale prepares you for successfully overseeing larger responsibilities. Do not despise the day of small beginnings.

Image Credit: Love the wind/Shutterstock
Paul Comfort
Paul Comfort Member
I am one of the public transit industry’s leading evangelists (a former CEO of the MTA, Baltimore City Transit System and the 2016 Winner of the President’s Award for Public Transportation from AASHTO (American Association of State Highway, Transportation Officials) and as VP of North America's largest transit technology/software company am writing and speaking on business leadership topics and how technology is affecting transit/mobility in our cities. I am also a keynote speaker at conferences around the nation and world and love to write and speak about leaderhip/management in business and how to be more effective at both.