Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Serving Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties

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My Time with Joe

Sylvia Smith
SEPTA Operations Administrator

Quick on his feet, SEPTA's general manager is a man with a mission to run the sixth largest transportation company in the United States as effectively, progressively and efficiently as the current funding climate will allow. On Thursday, September 26, 2013, I, Sylvia Smith, a three-year employee (I'm told I'm a neophyte), had the opportunity to shadow for the entire day, Joe Casey, the general manager of this remarkable company. By the end of the workday, I had nothing but respect for his daily routine. Here's my first person account:

Based on an Authority-wide contest, today, I am the General Manager's shadow and I am enthusiastic about spending the day with Joe Casey. Prior to today, I've met him in passing in the hallways, at ambassador events, bus and rail rodeos and, when encountered, he's always had a kind smile and a warm handshake for me or a soft chuckle when I said something comical.

On this warm September morning, I arrive at his office, shake his hand, and sit down to go over how our day will unfold. His schedule is packed! His executive assistant Ann Gaffney quietly interjects and announces an adjustment in his schedule. "There will be a meeting with the Chairman. He wants to discuss a few issues regarding the state legislature's upcoming transportation funding vote," she says. As he listens to her, Joe tells me that he needs to go through the Daily News Clippings that Ray Massey and Heather Redfern prepare for him and the senior staff. The information they have pulled together in the early morning hours, before everyone else gets to work, covers an array of transportation news from around the country. But as I read the clips, I note that most of the articles feature funding. It's all about funding.

After reviewing the clips, it's time for the GM staff meeting. We bustle down the hall to a conference room where the GM team awaits to discuss the monthly board meeting scheduled for later in the day. Many powerful management people are in the room, yet, although professional, I smile often as small bursts of humor are injected in to the discussion as the meeting progresses. The table is laden with papers and reports prepared for the business at hand. Each member of this diverse team contributes and Joe actively listens. The collective intelligence and compassion for the Authority each GM team member displays makes me delighted that I came to work for SEPTA. Once the meeting ends, we are fully prepared for the afternoon board meeting.

Now it's off to the next item on his agenda, the meeting with Chairman Pat Deon. (Boy! Joe walks so fast. But I'm up for the challenge and I manage to keep up with his fast paced steps). The first thing Chairman Deon asks me when Joe introduces me to him and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is, "Why would you want to shadow Joe?" I proudly respond, "Well, I hope to be GM of SEPTA someday." Chairman Deon chuckles and says, "You probably will." He has a wonderful sense of humor. I say to myself, here's a man who rose to the top with absolute guts and endurance. Chairman Deon and Joe Casey have a mutually admirable relationship. I can clearly see and feel that they respect each other.

I find their discussion of funding issues and the voting patterns of the legislators in Harrisburg mesmerizing. I never realized elected officials played such a huge influence in our business, but these are savvy men. They know what is required to get the job done and when their discussion concludes, they are united in their common goals to secure the increased dollars needed for SEPTA's capital budget.

In the brief moments before the next meeting, I have a few questions of my own for Joe. I ask, "How would you define this job?" His response is, "This job defines you. You don't define it. I had no intention to be the GM of SEPTA because I didn't know how I could make a difference. I was comfortable where I was...But after some serious contemplation, I decided to grasp the opportunity. Sylvia, if I leave you with anything today, remember this, don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone." Joe added that he's made advances with SEPTA's reputation, not only externally, but internally too. Customers' ideology of SEPTA is at a place where it has not been in a long time. "We get a lot of positive feedback from both our employees and customers." He tells me how he has instituted the FIT program to rehabilitate the worn down districts/depots, repairing and rebuilding them one at a time. "The process is a little daunting at times but we are getting there. I want the employees to know that I care about their work place," he says. The compassion in his voice tells me he is sincere, and genuine. Joe adds that recognizing our employees and the jobs they do well is extremely important to morale. He wants employees to be proud-proud of their jobs, proud of SEPTA, and proud of themselves. He goes on to tell me that he wears his SEPTA employee badge and clothing with pride.

As our day continues, we're off to yet another meeting (Where are my roller skates?). We attend a quick 15-minute marketing pitch from a young, up-and-coming social media company. The young men are bright and articulate. Joe listens intently. Funding is at the forefront, but he lets them know we'll be in touch.

Then, we're off to the next meeting, an executive session with SEPTA board members, a distinguished group of leaders with diverse backgrounds. They meet before the public session to discuss legal matters. During this meeting, Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel provides a preview of the SEPTA Service Realignment Plan he'll present in the public meeting. He does a fine job demonstrating SEPTA's need to secure an increase in state capital budget funding needed to address the Authority's backlog of critical infrastructure projects. Everyone listens and pays close attention. We're only minutes away from the final large meeting of the day. At the public board meeting, I am honored to sit next to Rina Cutler-Philadelphia's Deputy Mayor of Transportation. When Joe introduces me as his GM shadow at the start of the public meeting, the people in attendance applaud and I feel thankful for this wonderful occasion.

The meeting goes off without an interruption and, once it adjourns, Joe and I are again briskly walking back to his office for our final time together. He has one more meeting. It's four o'clock and he has not stopped moving from the moment I walked through his door. How does he do it? He seems to be motivated by sheer drive, determination and passion for this business called transportation.

Before leaving Joe for the day, I ask him if he has any final words for me. He says, "Just remember what I told you earlier, don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. If you do something even if it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, you will learn and grow more than you can imagine."

Thank you Joe for your time and for sharing with me the passion you have for the Authority, it's external and, as important, internal people. This morning, I walked into his office proud to shadow Joe. And at the end of a very long day, I walked out honored to have been allowed to tag along with him all day.

I would absolutely, if given the opportunity, do it again. Except next time, I'll wear my roller skates!

Sylvia's first order of business is to take a seat and enjoy the view from SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey's desk.

Following a meeting with SEPTA Chairman Pat Deon (Center), General Manager Joe Casey (right) takes a moment to pose for a picture with his "shadow" Sylvia (left).

Pictured left to right; SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, SEPTA Assistant General Manager of Operations Ron Hopkins, SEPTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel and GM Shadow Sylvia Smith discuss the Authority's extensive system.

General Manager Joe Casey, his "shadow" Sylvia and Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel meet with SEPTA senior staff to discuss New Payment Technology.