Clare’s Jackson a legend in transit industry

By Karen Robes Meeks

 

When Carl Sedoryk came to work for Long Beach Transit as “the IT guy” in 1988, he only planned to stay long enough to get through his master’s degree in finance from Cal State Long Beach.

But Larry Jackson, Long Beach Transit’s president and CEO, had other ideas.

For the next 12 years, Jackson took Sedoryk under his wing and put him in leadership roles, exposing him to different aspects of the organization from marketing and customer service to labor negotiations. For Sedoryk, who at the time hardly had any transit experience, the tutelage was invaluable.

Today, Sedoryk runs the Monterey Salinas Transit as its general manager and CEO, a career success he credits to Jackson’s mentorship.

“Having someone like Larry take an active interest in my personal development allowed me to want to stay,” he said. “He really gave me an interest in what transit does for a community.”

Jackson, 64, is considered a legend in the transit industry. In Long Beach, Jackson oversees 731 employees and a transit system serving 27.8 million passengers in Long Beach, Lakewood, Signal Hill and other cities in Southeast Los Angeles County.

Some have fondly called Long Beach Transit the “Larry Jackson University.”

During his 32-year tenure as head of the city’s transportation agency, Jackson has trained and mentored dozens of employees, several of whom have gone on to lead other transportation agencies, including Golden Empire Transit District CEO Karen King, Culver City Transportation Director Art Ida, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus CEO Ed King and Riverside Transit Agency CEO Larry Rubio, who was recently named Manager of the Year for 2011 by the California Transportation Foundation.

“In short, he created a transit leadership development academy just within Long Beach Transit, and the whole industry has benefited from that,” Sedoryk said.

Sedoryk was among those who helped nominate Jackson for the American Public Transportation Association’s Outstanding Public Transportation Manager award in leadership and innovation excellence, which Jackson won earlier this month. He will be given the award at the annual APTA conference in October in Seattle.

“Larry has been an icon in our industry for as long as I’ve been in the industry, and I’ve been in the industry for 24 years,” said APTA president and CEO Michael Melaniphy. “Every industry has those people who you see walk into a room and you say, `He’s a cool guy.’ That’s Larry Jackson to us.”

For a guy so honored for developing transportation leaders and bringing out-of-the-box ideas to the industry, Jackson didn’t come from a family of transportation folks.

The second oldest of six children and the only boy, Jackson grew up and worked in the meat and grocery business in Clare, Michigan, hours away from Detroit automakers. His family didn’t own a car until his early teens.

His first job was working in his family’s Jackson’s Market at age 8.

“I made 25 cents an hour stocking shelves,” Jackson said at his Central Long Beach office Tuesday, recalling his first job. “The seniors like Willard Bicknell and Helen Lucille Doherty would say, `I want little Larry to wait on me.’ You learned customer service. I knew nearly every person in town by name. You were respectful. You thanked them.”

He worked at the family market until he left for Michigan State University.

After college, he enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps., serving in the 3rd Marine Air Wing during Vietnam.

That’s what brought Jackson to California, where he was discharged at the former El Toro base in Orange County.

He was soon hired as an economist doing financial work on transportation projects. By 24, he was a project manager working with the Army Corps of Engineers, running a department in the consultant engineering firm. He looked so young that someone from his firm told him, “They (the Army Corps of Engineers) think you’re about 18. Grow a beard.”‘

He was hired by the city of Long Beach in 1975 to analyze Long Beach Transit’s grant program and hired by then-General Manager Bill Farell two years later to run the administrative side of transit operations. By 1978, Jackson became chief operating officer and by 1980, at age 31, he became president and general manager.

Though he had a strong financial background and had previously worked in operations, Jackson was unsure of his ability and turned to his longtime employees.

“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” Jackson said. “There was a lot of on-the-job training, but you surround yourself with good people, develop a level of trust and respect from the 30-year veterans and brought them into the decision-making process.”

He also worked to keep customers in mind. In 1975, he started the Dial-A-Lift service before there was an American with Disabilities Act and later pushed for the entire fleet to be accessible to those with disabilities.

“It’s taken for granted today that there’s all these transportation systems and curb cuts and everything, but it wasn’t like that back then,” Jackson said.

He helped to develop the Long Beach Transit Mall in the early 1980s and later led renovation efforts to turn it into art space and transit hub.

He’s also brought the Passport, the AquaLink and AquaBus water taxis, the Cal State Long Beach U-Pass program and GPS bus tracking.

Sedoryk remembered Jackson’s mandate as he was putting in Long Beach Transit’s first automated telephone system.

“Larry insisted that when somebody calls Long Beach Transit, they are going to talk to a person, not a machine,” Sedoryk said. “And that’s something I learned from Larry and keep in place in Monterey as well. You’ve got to keep the customers in mind.”

Maintaining that level of customer service has been a struggle as higher fuel prices and the recession continue to affect the transit agency.

Recent years have been tough on transit employees as well, with four years of wage freezes. Although the agency did approve a 2 percent wage increase, employees are paying 5 percent more in retirement and health care.

“It’s been a five-year nightmare, but our employees have really pulled through this,” he said, adding that Long Beach Transit hasn’t had to lay off an employee in the last 50 years. “I’ve got to make that choice, to serve the customer and keep everybody employed.”

As he contemplates retirement “in the not-too-distant future,” Jackson said he hopes he’s remembered for the values of the organization and the people who embody them.

“I hope those small town values of service to community and to customers are being spread throughout California and the nation. And if I’m remembered for that, this is a better place than when I was on the scene 30, 40 years ago, that’s all I can ask for.”