Each morning, cars in one lane of the Dulles Greenway toll plaza pause at the booth a little longer than it should take to hand over a buck fifty.
Forgetting for a moment that they're in a hurry, drivers are stopping to exchange pleasantries with toll collector Darun Ngarmkham, a 46-year-old Thai woman with a slight build and a big grin.
Ngarmkham is one of those people commuters look forward to seeing during what can be a grueling drive into Fairfax County or Washington. And she is one of those employees that companies--the Greenway is a private road owned by Toll Road Investors Partnership II (TRIP II)--cherish because they are human marketing tools.
Since the Greenway opened four years ago, TRIP II has marketed heavily, taking out full-page newspaper advertisements to persuade commuters to spend the extra money on the less congested route. "People don't have to take our road," said Mark E. Manlove, marketing manager for the Greenway.
So many people don't take the Greenway--either because they choose not to spend the money or because development the company was relying on hasn't happened yet--that the road has come close to foreclosure. In April, the Greenway's owners completed the sale of $390 million worth of insured bonds to pay off creditors, including a $1.2 million debt to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The toll road logged about 6.4 million trips in 1996, 10 million in 1998--still short of projections and profit. The drive to recruit commuters is why the company spends so much time training its toll collectors.
The workers take a four-day class, including two days of classroom work and two days of apprenticeship in the booth with a more senior collector. The trainers spend much of that time on customer service--from giving directions to clearing a lane quickly for an ambulance.
"We recognized from the beginning what an important role they play," said Donna Sukkar, operations manager for Autostrade International of Virginia O & M Inc., the company that operates the road.
Sukkar previously worked for the Dulles Toll Road; the Greenway is often mistakenly considered an extension of that state-owned road. When she left, "I had promised not to steal any of their toll workers," she said.
Ngarmkham was one of those workers for six years. But when she heard about the Greenway opening, she approached Sukkar about switching.
"I was like, yes!" Sukkar said--and because Ngarmkham had approached her, Sukkar could hire her. And she did, four years ago.
Ngarmkham--most people call her Took, short for Tookta, a family nickname that means "cute doll" in Thai--has an accounting degree from a college in Bangkok. She worked in accounting for 13 years for the Thai army. But in 1985, she and her husband, Somchai, moved to the United States so their son could get his education here. The move was her idea, but her husband went along willingly, she said. "Only one child he loves so much--spoiled, too," she laughed.
Ngarmkham lives in Sterling. Her three brothers and sister all live nearby. One brother and the sister work for a computer company, one brother works at a hotel, and one works at a car rental company. She worked briefly in the accounting department at Host Marriott Corp. but was bored. She saw an ad for the Dulles Toll Road in the newspaper and applied. She loved seeing people all day, rather than staring at numbers.
"They're so happy to see me," she said. "A lot of patrons ask me, Did you never been mad?" She said she makes it a point not to get upset, even when people complain about the Greenway's prices. When they gripe, she cheerfully gives them the customer service number.
Manlove said he often gets letters and e-mail messages complimenting Ngarmkham and several other toll collectors. The feedback is encouraging, he said, because he has tried since his arrival in November to tout the Greenway as a community service rather than just a road.
Manlove said that when he took the marketing job, "there didn't seem to be any consistency" in the message the Greenway promotional materials conveyed. Manlove said the company is now trying to send a message to the community by getting involved in things such as Little League sponsorship, the March of Dimes and a child safety seat campaign. The Greenway is working in conjunction with the Virginia State Police and the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets on the safety program.
In addition, Manlove said, the company has moved away from an advertising campaign that he felt focused on a very narrow segment of the population.
One of the print ads in the old campaign features a mother donning an apron and standing by the stove with her two children--clearly cooking for Daddy, who would be there any minute. "Guess who's coming to dinner," the tag line read.
"It was very '50s, very 'Leave It to Beaver,' very white-bread," Manlove said. The new campaign features cartoons of people using various contraptions to fly over traffic.
Ngarmkham said she notices the difference between working for a state-run road and a private one. On the Greenway, she said, "it's better than the [Dulles] Toll Road. . . . Because it is private, they try to make the business work."
The work is not always easy, she said. For one thing, the car exhaust can aggravate her allergies. For another, the constant standing is a strain. She has had neck surgery to work on a nerve that she thinks may have been stressed from the repetitive motion of giving change.
And she doesn't see her husband much, even though once again they are working for the same organization: He starts work in the Greenway's maintenance department as she is heading home.
But recently, she said, she and her husband took their first fun vacation. They drove to Disney World for several days--with her husband behind the wheel.
"I'm not too good at driving," she laughed.
CAPTION: Darun Ngarmkham, 46, of Sterling, says she has built a loyal following in her work collecting tolls on the privately run Dulles Greenway.
CAPTION: A driver stops to chat with Greenway toll taker Darun Ngarmkham, who emigrated from Thailand with her family in 1985.