Search for Metro manager draws strong pool of candidates, board members say

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010

Metro's search for a permanent general manager has attracted a strong pool of candidates, including some managers who have no transit background, according to members of Metro's board of directors involved in the search.

The board has a list of between one dozen and two dozen active candidates that it received from the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, which the board hired in May on a $150,000 contract, according to Metro. Another dozen candidates are still being assessed.

Board members said they had been afraid they would not receive such a high volume of interest in the position, given Metro's safety, financial and operational challenges.

"I was shocked at the unprecedented and highly advanced people who have expressed interest in the job," said Jeff C. McKay, an alternate board member who is also a Fairfax County supervisor. "The preliminary list of people with expressed interest was very strong, with some candidates who certainly exceed our expected credentials."

"My greatest fear was there would not be enormous interest in the position, due to the problems of the system," he said. "This is a hard job, and everybody in the country knows it is a hard job."

The search firm has been winnowing the list, and the board is preparing to reduce it further beginning this month through a review of resumes and interviews, said Peter Benjamin, chairman of the board. Although the search is international, the preliminary list of candidates did not include any overseas applicants, McKay said.

Benjamin and McKay are part of a search committee made up of four board members. Benjamin has said the search could end quickly or take more time depending on what the board learns during interviews this fall.

Board members declined to provide information on individual candidates, in part to avoid putting their current jobs at risk. But McKay said that the active candidates include senior managers from the public and private sectors and a "myriad" of industries, including the transit industry from all regions of the country, and that "these are new-idea people."

"We need someone who is able to shake things up," he added.

Metro's quest for new leadership comes as the transit agency is struggling with large budget gaps and resulting fare increases, aging equipment, and an unprecedented number of safety investigations after a string of accidents and mishaps. Metro has the second-busiest subway system in the country, and along with its bus service provides more than 1 million trips for people in the Washington region each day.

Metro's former general manager John B. Catoe Jr. announced his resignation in January, saying he felt that his continued presence at the helm was detracting from Metro's efforts to reform. General Manager Richard Sarles, former head of New Jersey Transit, took charge as Catoe left in April and is on a yearlong contract.

Metro's board has emphasized that it is casting a broad net in the search. "There are concentric circles of people who all know each other and get moved around the country from one position to the next," McKay said. "We need to have people who know less about running trains and more about running a high-level large organization, and are a very proficient manager," he said.

The other members of the search committee are Neil Albert of the District and Mortimer Downey, a federally appointed board member.

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