Executive Spotlight Q&A: Bill Deville, CATS

(Photo by Don Kadair)

Name: William J. “Bill” Deville
Position: Chief executive officer, Capital Area Transit System
Age: 69
Hometown: Lake Charles
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration with a minor in accounting and economics, Xavier University New Orleans

Bill Deville has been down this path before. The former head of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority in the early 2000s, Deville was named interim CEO of the Capital Area Transit System after Bob Mirabito stepped down in May of 2016. He had served as CATS’ chief operating officer since 2013, so he knew the challenge he would face when he applied for the permanent gig—a job he won in September. “I have the benefit of knowing the staff and what is expected,” he says. Unsurprisingly, Deville sees similarities in the issues CATS faces now and the problems he dealt with at NORTA. “Early on, NORTA was in debt and short on operating revenues, needing operating expense reductions, service improvements and upgrades to the fleet and facilities,” he says. He also sees an opportunity for CATS to help the Capital Region rebound from the August flood, similar to NORTA’s role in post-Katrina operations. “Transit can help boost a rebounding city and economy,” he says.

Where did your career start, and how did that previous experience prepare you for your current position?

I started in private industry for a couple of years until I found out that with each promotion came a relocation. Then I settled locally with Tulane University Medical Center/Promate Research Center, followed by District Attorney Harrick Conner, followed by an oil embargo inspired by a U.S. Energy project to create “oil in the ground reserves” campaign. Then I saw a great opportunity when a federal law passed causing the New Orleans Public Service (or Entergy now) to divest itself of its mass transit system of buses and streetcars. My first job there was budget director, reporting to the comptroller; I worked my way up to the top position of general manager/president of the agency and retired there at the end of 2006. My early career created a great portfolio of education, management training and diverse business management experience giving me total confidence in my ability to deal with all kinds of challenges, and really sharpened my ability to lead and bring people together for a common cause. I got a great glimpse of how private business works.

You used to lead the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. Did New Orleans have any transportation problems that were similar to the issues in Baton Rouge?

Yes. Early on, NORTA was in debt and short on operating revenues, needing operating expense reductions, service improvements and upgrades to the fleet and facilities. I also see similarities with the New Orleans Canal streetcar project, which I helped to bring to reality, and the TramLinkBR project, which needs funding and implementation. I’m happy that CATS is joining the city-parish efforts on TramLink. Obviously, I hope that we can bring some of the lessons learned post-Katrina in New Orleans to Baton Rouge’s long-term flood recovery. Transit can help boost a rebounding city and economy. It’s different but similar, in that displaced residents in EBR, Baker and surrounding parishes may need and get the benefit of CATS for years to come, until Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes’ recovery is completed.

It’s early, but what have been some of the unexpected challenges in your new position so far?

First of all, we have a dedicated team committed to providing the transportation service this city needs. Having been at CATS since December 2013, there are not many unexpected challenges; I knew what I was getting into when I took the position. The biggest challenge we have right now—and we are working to correct it—is the aged fleet we use.

CATS is in transition at the moment, with you taking over after the previous CEO, Bob Mirabito, stepped down. How are you preparing to take on the challenge and make sure things run smoothly?

Having been here for three years, the transition has been fairly smooth. I have the benefit of knowing the staff and what is expected. Right now I am focused on learning the strengths of my team and putting people where they have the best chance to help CATS succeed. Next up is working to create a formal strategic plan with our board, improving technology and enhancing communication with our riders and relationships with our stakeholders.

What is one thing about your job people don’t expect or know about?

People think that CATS management does not communicate with riders. I don’t think people realize that I engage with riders a lot. This is not a complaint on my part—with so many years of financial and operational neglect, a culture has developed at CATS where morale for both employees and riders is very low. I spend a good amount of time getting calls, emails and texts from employees, riders, stakeholders and the media, just about anywhere or anytime. Additionally, right now there is a tremendous amount of time lost from our normal operations because of the disastrous flood in August. Disaster recovery and working with FEMA requires a significant amount of time.

What are the biggest challenges CATS faces in trying to attract more riders to its routes?

The old vehicles we use are definitely a hindrance to attracting more riders. We are working to overcome that and will have 24 brand new buses by spring 2017. We also have to get better with the frequency and timeliness of our routes. In general, CATS needs to work on its “brand” in the community by improving its performance and changing its culture so that we can better serve riders.

You said recently that CATS will continue to review its routes to find more efficient services for riders. Do you have any specific changes in mind?

We monitor our routes continuously, and we are always looking for ways to optimize the system and provide the best service we can for the community. We look to see if there are underperforming routes whose resources could be better used on higher performing routes and work to make those enhancements. Specifically, we are looking to reduce “headway,” which is the time between buses at stops along a route, ideally to 15 and 20 minute intervals on most, if not all, core transit routes. We are starting off with reducing one-hour headways to 30 minutes, and making greater reductions on some core routes with decent ridership that we know needs more frequent service.

What are your other goals for your CATS for the future?

We aim to make CATS a true regional transit authority, and we want to be an economic partner not only in Baton Rouge but also in the surrounding areas. We know that a lot of our workforce in Baton Rouge lives in outlying areas, and we want to be able to provide them alternative transportation methods while we continue to improve our core service. We have a lot of long-term goals—supporting TramLinkBR, launching Bus Rapid Transit on Florida Boulevard and then later on Plank Road, implementing electric buses and finding funds to enhance our service. I also want to see CATS working with the city to align our service with its projects and support them where we can with funding to help enhance bus shelters, sidewalks and greenery. We have a lot of work to do.

If you had to choose one characteristic, what would you says is the most special thing about CATS?

We provide a service. We serve the community. We really do want the best for the community, because it’s our community. I think the great majority of people who work here like their jobs and want CATS to make a turnaround and succeed. Our employees want to make Baton Rouge proud of CATS.

What is your favorite part about what you do? What makes you excited about going to work?

Seeing happy customers and stakeholders with smiles on their faces when we get it right. Then seeing the smiles on the faces of our employees when they see how pleased those customers and stakeholders are. That’s a great feeling.

What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you’ve overcome, and how did you overcome it?

Professionally, the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, in 2005, when I was its chief executive officer. We had to evacuate 100 employees who volunteered to stay and another 150 family members who stayed back with them, when the floodwaters reached six feet all around our transit facility where we were stationed on Canal Street to help evacuate a lot of folks. We wound up afterwards having to evacuate ourselves because we were surrounded by up to 6 feet of water. Personally, losing my dad suddenly to a vehicle accident when I was 17, the oldest of eight kids, and seeing how my mother was devastated.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

Leading the rescue and recovery of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority and its 1,300 employees from the Hurricane Katrina disaster, speaking before Congress, and having the president’s secretary of transportation come to see personally what we accomplished both in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, to get back on our feet. We obtained millions in recovery dollars that helped bring that system back.

What other leadership roles do you hold in the community and/or what volunteer efforts do you support?

Efforts underway to turn around CATS with a sense of urgency takes up nearly all of my time, 24/7. However, we are now getting more and more engaged with a number of key stakeholders and I serve on committees and campaigns, including CPEX Smart Growth, BRAC Quality of Life, BRAF ride share, TramBRLink steering committee and CRISIS.

What is a great piece of advice you personally received? Did you have occasion to put it to use?

The best advice I ever received is to always take the high road. Trust me, I put it to use often.

What gets your workday off to a good start?

I like to start with a solid moment of prayer and meditation.

What do you do to unwind?

Play tennis or golf or take in a good movie.

What is an item on your “bucket list”?

Seeing a light or commuter rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In Louisiana, we are way behind the times. This is needed yesterday.

Where is your go-to spot in Baton Rouge during your free time?

I don’t really have a lot of free time, but I like relaxing in a quiet restaurant with good food that has a great river view.

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