Adam Giambrone Q&A
Q&A: In Saudi Arabia, Adam Giambrone finds a fresh challenge
The former Toronto Transit Commission chair and New York City streetcar czar relocated to Riyahd last December to become a senior executive at the Saudi Public Transport Company.
Posted on Aug. 5, 2019
Adam Giambrone
Adam Giambrone, 42, is probably best known for his maverick days in Canadian politics, where he ran unsuccessfully for a Toronto City Council seat at the age of 23, was elected Toronto’s youngest councillor at 26 and waged a 10-day, scandal-shortened Toronto mayoral campaign at 33. But it’s in the world of public transportation that he’s making his mark.

While serving as a Toronto councillor, Giambrone chaired the Toronto Transit Commission from 2006 to 2010. He was praised for his youthful energy, hard work and passion. During his term, he was credited with spearheading a significant expansion of bus service and the modernization of the agency’s subway stations.

Subsequently, he worked as a TV commentator, newspaper columnist and transit consultant in Milwaukee, Montreal and, most recently, New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped him to oversee the city’s BQX (Brooklyn-Queens Connector) streetcar project.

When he arrived in New York City in 2016, Giambrone expected that the BQX project timeline to completion would be 5 years or so, but it eventually became apparent that growing political resistance would at least
Giambrone at a Toronto Transit Commission meeting in 2010. Photo by Lucas Oleniuk | Getty Images
double the timeline, if not quash the project altogether. Last October, he resigned and returned to Canada.

His unemployment didn’t last long. In December 2018, he headed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to begin a new job as General Manager of Strategy and Performance at the Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO), where he is helping the company administer transit mega-projects, including a modernized bus network with thousands of new intercity and intracity buses and a 6-line, 86-station subway system in Riyadh.

Transit Talent's Steve Hirano spoke with Giambrone to gain some perspective on his new engagement.

Transit Talent: How did you find your new position?

Adam Giambrone: As the BQX [Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar project] shifted towards a slower track through the environmental review process, I started keeping my eyes open for new opportunities, and I saw a small ad placed by SAPTCO on the APTA website. I was interested because I have a history in North Africa and the Middle East. I’ve been in public transit since 2003, but prior to that, I had worked in Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Jordan. So, on a lark, I sent off a resume, and they responded very quickly to begin the process.

What exactly does your job entail?

My job involves overseeing a variety of transformation projects. As a general manager, I’m working on a wide range of projects from network optimization and a new dynamic pricing system for our intercity bus lines to improving the annual budget process.

I’m also working with large international consulting companies like Bain on strategy and Korn Ferry on restructuring our salary scale, incentive plans and a KPI system.

I also enjoy the hands-on element of projects like our maintenance transformation that has me visiting garages to work on making maintenance more efficient. So in general the job involves long days and travel, but as there are many varied tasks, time flies by.

Tell me about your employer, SAPTCO.

SAPTCO is a quasi-governmental company. The government appoints the board of directors. We are the only operating public transit company in the country, and we’ve got a lot of huge transportation projects going on. Saudi Arabia is undergoing a massive infrastructure expansion to reduce its dependence on oil and to improve the livability of its cities as part of their Vision 2030 plan. One of the things that makes cities more livable is easy access to public transportation.

Here in Riyadh, which has a population of 7 million people, we have a bus network with only 80 buses operating. It’s very minimal. There are no bus stops. Buses stop on every corner along the routes. We’re under construction on bus stops, which will have shelters and next-vehicle information. We have 1,000 new buses waiting to be rolled out later this year.

The government is constructing 6 subway lines in Riyahd with 86 stations. They’re building all 6 lines simultaneously, so it’s a little crazy right now. SAPTCO will work with other partners to operate the system.

The big attraction here is that there is money to finance these huge transit projects.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

Recruiting enough talent to make these transportation projects happen. It’s difficult to find and hire managers who can take a project and run with it. I think it’s a challenge faced by the other agencies and government entities here in Saudi Arabia.

Giambrone and colleagues attended the UITP Summit in Sweden in June. Photo: SAPTCO's Facebook Page
Also, recruiting in Saudi Arabia is a little different than in North America, where you have a process to ensure fairness or some objectivity. Here it’s exactly the opposite. It’s much more based on personal networks. It’s simpler, but it restricts your candidate pool if you don’t happen to know somebody who’s a good fit for a particular position.

Also, we compete for managers with other transportation agencies across the Middle East, as many cities have large expansion programs underway including Kuwait, Cairo, Bahrain and other large projects, like high-speed rail in Saudi Arabia. We’re having to change how we recruit our workforce as well as the salary levels.

How difficult is it to recruit at the lower end, say, bus operators?

Traditionally, it hasn’t been difficult because we’ve recruited from low-wage countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Yemen, India and Pakistan. But the Saudi government is progressing on what they call “Saudization,” which in this case means to take jobs traditionally filled by expats and fill them with Saudi citizens.

I’m working with recruiting agencies here in Saudi Arabia because less than 1% of our bus drivers are Saudis, and we’re required by law to hit a series of targets. We’re also looking to recruit female bus drivers, and, as you probably know, it’s only been in the last year and a half that women have been able to drive at all in Saudi Arabia.

Has it been difficult to adjust to life in Riyadh?

When people ask what life is like here in Riyadh, I say that the worst part is that the city reminds me of Phoenix. It’s hot, sometimes up to 125 degrees, and there’s a lot of traffic congestion and sprawl. It’s a very car-oriented environment, which is different for me since I’ve spent so much time in cities like Toronto, Montreal and New York City that have good public transportation.

Are you able to take public transportation to the office?

No, I use Uber. I literally can’t take the bus right now, short of walking 2 or 3 kilometers to the bus stop. Which is weird for me as someone who has always used public transportation. The first 3 or 4 months I walked to and from the office, but I’m not prepared to walk when it’s 120 degrees.

What about your interactions with your Saudi colleagues? Do you feel isolated as the only non-Saudi in senior management?

No, not at all. One of the things that I was told is that Saudis will be very nice to you at work, but don’t expect to be invited to their homes. Well, I’ve been invited to the wedding of a colleague. He’s one of our junior Saudi managers. And the head of marketing took me around to help me find an apartment when I got here. Even though I can communicate in Arabic, it was helpful. The people here are very nice. Yes, the workplace culture is a little different, but the experience has exceeded my expectations in a positive way.

How has the political fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi killing affected your objectives?

It really hasn’t affected anything from a practical perspective. But for candidates, it might weigh on their minds when they evaluate the country and their desire to come and live in it. With the current political situation, Saudi Arabia can be a difficult sell.

How about for you, personally?

My personal feeling is that I’m working in public transit. The people who use public transit in Saudi Arabia are generally lower income. All the things you would say about the societal benefits of public transit in other countries apply here as well. People here are just normal people trying to live their lives. They need a way to get around.

Any idea on how long you’re going to stay in Saudi Arabia?

Even in a fast-paced environment like Saudi Arabia, you can’t accomplish anything without being here for a while. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but my intention is to see projects through and get them up and running. It’s nice to point to projects and say, that was me.


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