Brains, Gains, and Automobiles

BC Transit’s legacy of innovation attracted Aaron Lamb and, now as executive director of asset management, he’s working to preserve and protect that culture for a new generation of employees

Lamb’s asset management division includes body shop staff—shown here completing a mid-life refurbishment on a 2005 hybrid-powered bus. Photo by Colin Hynes

Through the window in BC Transit’s small interview room, Aaron Lamb could see his truck, which sat in the parking lot just several feet away. He was nearing completion of his mechanical engineering program at the University of Victoria and was looking for his final university co-op program position. When the hiring manager asked Lamb about his hobbies, he nodded towards his truck and talked about his passion for rebuilding automobiles. He had just rebuilt the engine. It turns out the two men shared a passion for auto mechanics. Lamb knew he was at home.

That was 15 years ago, and today, Lamb is executive director of asset management for BC Transit—a unique crown agency responsible for all aspects of public transit throughout the entire province excluding Metro Vancouver. After Lamb completed his engineering degree, BC Transit hired him. And although Lamb aced his official co-op interview, the process of getting hired full-time was something of a formality; he already got to know the organization through the co-op program. That’s where Lamb discovered how closely his values and passions aligned with those of BC Transit. “I saw right away that my innovative and entrepreneurial spirit matched BC Transit as an organization, and the interview showed me that I also fit in well with the people,” he says. “I recognized immediately that BC Transit would be a great place to work.”

“We manage our risk by determining the appropriate magnitude of a trial by using the diversity we have across the system.”

Lamb started as a fleet engineer, working directly as a protégé of the manager who interviewed him.  Two years later, the manager retired, but he left an impression on Lamb regarding BC Transit’s culture. “He embraced those things like innovation, technology, and risk taking that make BC Transit different from other organizations,” Lamb recalls.

Transportation is a notoriously traditional industry, but the agency has legacy of breaking the mould. The agency started in 1890 as the National Electric Tramway and Light Company. And while most transportation groups are responsible just for one municipality (like the Calgary Transit or Chicago Transit Authority), BC Transit operates as a collection of subject matter experts that together execute public transit in more than 80 transit systems across the province.  Throughout its history, BC Transit has developed a legacy of innovation. In 1991, the agency was the first to use low-floor busses in North America, and even the first to put LED destination signs in its busses. In 2000, they implemented the first use of a fleet of low-floor double-decker buses in North America, and, in 2010, the group began using the largest fleet of hydrogen-fuel-cell buses in the world.

Those firsts—along with BC Transit’s culture and professional development opportunities—have kept Lamb with the organization for 15 years. In his early years at the agency, Lamb dedicated himself to learning as much as possible from those who were nearing retirement age. After his first project in the modification of a braking system as a fleet engineer, he acquired new tech products as a fleet engineering supervisor and later led part of a major information systems project before working directly in fleet maintenance. In 2005, he became manager of engineering, and in 2008, Lamb accepted a promotion to director of vehicle asset management. After BC Transit sponsored Lamb’s MBA, he stepped in as an executive director and is now in charge of all BC Transit’s asset management.

Lamb knows it’s rare for modern employees to become long-tenured, but calls his match with BC Transit a stroke of luck. “There was the original alignment of my personal values of innovation and creativity with this organization’s culture. That’s why I came here, and I stay here because I’m constantly challenged and supported,” he explains. Now that he’s in leadership, Lamb works to preserve, maintain, and propel BC Transit’s culture. Innovation is still one of six core values, and he’s focused on preaching innovation so new employees buy into helping BC Transit provide value to customers and local government partners.

BC Transit accomplishes that goal by leveraging its unique structure. With varying fleet sizes—Victoria has a system of 350 busses while the agency’s smallest system has just 1—Lamb can test new products, materials, and strategies in real time. “We manage our risk by determining the appropriate magnitude of a trial by using the diversity we have across the system,” says Lamb. “Other transit systems may have to test a sample of 3 units in a fleet of 500. We can try a sample of three in a fleet of three,” he says. The setup allows BC Transit to stay agile, determine system-wide results, implement improvements quickly, and deliver improvements to its customers.

Lamb says he encourages new employees to learn as much as possible about BC Transit’s history and culture. He knows the value of professional development first hand and stresses its importance. BC Transit maintains a commitment to the development of its people, and two years ago, the organization established an HR action plan to ensure how this commitment to its employees will help BC Transit reach its objectives. BC Transit also recently launched its new employee-developed and led recognition program called REV (Recognizing Excellence and Values), which identifies and celebrates outstanding BC Transit employees, including innovative successes. “Our employees know what we’re about, and the continued commitment this organization has in its culture is bearing fruit today,” says Lamb. “When you develop solid corporate values, lead by example, and get your employees on board, you see the results now and many years later.”