Profile: New Delaware River Port Authority CEO Takes On Tough Assignment

Tara Nurin | April 16, 2014 | Profiles, Transportation
John Hanson charged with restoring functionality and faith in South Jersey’s beleaguered transit agency

John Hanson
Like its North Jersey counterpart, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Delaware River Port Authority is under intense public scrutiny.

As former CFO and new CEO John Hanson takes the helm of the authority, which oversees four major bridges and a commuter train line to Philadelphia, the agency faces a federal corruption investigation and strong criticism from Trenton, in addition to public frustration over a troubled modernization project.

Name: John T. Hanson

Age: 54

Background and family: Raised in Audubon, Camden County, he now lives in Cherry Hill with his wife and college-aged son. He has three additional grown children.

Hobbies: Hanson claims to have discovered his first and only hobby earlier this year after reading that theatrical improvisation classes can teach valuable skills to business leaders. He’s finished his first course and, finding that he enjoys it, has enrolled in his second. “The guiding concept of improv is, ‘Yes, and …’ This means you have to listen to others and build on what they say,” he explains.

His DRPA career: Former Gov. Donald DiFrancesco named him to the bi-state agency’s board of commissioners in 2002, and he joined the Camden-based staff as treasurer and chief financial officer two years later. In January, commissioners appointed him acting CEO and offered him a three-year permanent position last month. The position becomes official in May, assuming Gov. Christie doesn’t veto his appointment. He’ll be keeping his $180,000 annual salary even though his predecessor earned $220,000. Hanson says he decided not to negotiate because he wanted to get right to work and because he’s not convinced more money would have come.

What he did before the DRPA: As the first licensed CPA and MBA in memory to lead the DRPA, Hanson brings public and private sector experience to the job. He’s worked as an executive in finance at several companies and worked as senior vice president of strategic initiatives for the New Jersey Commerce Commission just prior to joining the DRPA. He also serves as chairman of the Camden County College board of trustees and was formerly deputy mayor of Audubon and chairman of the Camden County Republican Committee.

He graduated magna cum laude from Drexel University and earned his business degree from St. Joseph’s University outside Philadelphia. Calling himself a life-long learner, he’s taken three leadership certificate courses given by Cornell University and has received several certifications from the Lean Six Sigma methodology program, which teaches students to focus on customers while reducing institutional waste, defects and inefficiencies.

What he’s getting himself into: Hanson takes over for departing CEO John Matheussen, who led the agency for 10 years before leaving to become a Superior Court judge. During Matheussen’s tenure, the DRPA faced severe public criticism for making bad loans to support regional economic development projects while borrowing more than $500 million to pay for repairs to its PATCO commuter rail line and four South Jersey bridges.

Critics call it a pit of cronyism, and last year the state comptroller released a scathing report that excoriated it for wasteful spending and mismanagement while accusing board members of improperly receiving free trips and awarding loans and grants to politically connected firms without proper documentation. In December, the U.S. Attorney’s Office subpoenaed three board members (including Vice President and Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash) as part of an investigation into these claims.

But Hanson, who says as former CFO he expects to be questioned by federal prosecutors, knew about all of that when he accepted the position.

What he didn’t expect were the problems that erupted on PATCO within days of his appointment as acting director.

This winter, not only have riders been severely delayed by the launch a two-year maintenance project that closed tracks during rush hour, but engines on the 45-year-old fleet failed dozens of times, causing smoke to billow into cars and passengers to be evacuated in tunnels and on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. These troubles make widespread station elevator and escalator malfunctions seem almost benign.

What he thinks of the mess at the Port Authority of NY/NJ: Responding that he’s too busy with the complexities of his new job to pay attention to much else, he allows spokesperson Tim Ireland to answer for him that the two agencies, though connected by general purpose, geography and gubernatorial oversight, are too different in size, scope and structure to make many comparisons or draw any conclusions.

For instance, while the Port Authority controls the port along with several transit agencies, the DRPA has no jurisdiction over the ports of Camden or Philadelphia.

At the Port Authority, the governor of New Jersey appoints the chairman of the board and the deputy director and New York’s governor appoints the executive director and deputy chairman.

At the DRPA, New Jersey’s governor appoints eight members to the board, and Pennsylvania’s governor sends six appointees along with the state’s auditor-general and treasurer. Each governor has 10 days to veto any action taken by a commissioner from his or her respective state, and the governor of New Jersey has 10 days to veto meeting minutes. Commissioners elect their own chair and vice-chair.

How Hanson plans to fix the practical problems: One of his early priorities is to commission a new strategic plan, which, unlike one written in 2010, he says will be adhered to.

As a student of myriad modern management programs, Hanson preaches the power of collaboration.

Days after an employee warned him that the agency wasn’t prepared for the track maintenance that was to begin the following day, Hanson gathered a large team of employees from various departments to conduct a troubleshooting exercise. The ideas and approaches that emerged from that exercise and ongoing thrice-weekly meetings led him to temporarily suspend the rush hour track outages until staff and executives learn how to do them better. “We need to do them but we don’t have the skills to do them yet,” he said. “We are truly listening, though. That’s one of the improv skills.”

He’s not embarking on a “listening tour,” per se, but he’s deployed all levels of employees to conduct public relations damage control in stations and trains throughout the one-line, 14-mile system. He participates in some of the junkets and plans to expand approachability and transparency by setting up town-hall meetings, staffing information tables and holding regular press “availabilities” (“With really good coffee,” chimes in Communications Director Tim Ireland). Hanson has also addressed criticism of earlier administrations by boosting the DRPA’s social media presence … and he claims to read Twitter and Facebook comments himself.

How he plans to fix the credibility problems: “We need to recognize our role as stewards of the public,” he says.
“We hold our (bridges and rail system) in trust for the public and we hold financial resources in trust for the public.”

On a more symbolic level, he notes that he turned down his reserved parking spot and says he would have preferred to keep a smaller office where he’d be surrounded by co-workers instead of moving up to a nearly empty floor where he inhabits a large corner office with a dramatic view of the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline.

Why it’s obvious he’s a true MBA: During interviews with reporters, he illustrates points by drawing charts on a dry-erase board and he responds to questions by detailing the management principles that guide his decisions.

In an otherwise relatively unflattering internal audit commissioned by the DRPA in 2012, Hanson received repeated accolades for establishing a pilot program for 100 volunteer employees designed to build teamwork, leadership and efficiencies into the workforce.

He speaks proudly and often of the methodology he taught — called “Lean Six Sigma” –– that called on him to gather participants monthly to develop team-building, leadership and hard and soft skills. “The most amazing thing that came out of it was sense of community,” he says.

Lean Six Sigma ran three years but never moved past the pilot phase because he couldn’t get a commitment from above. Will he implement it full-scale now that he’s in charge? Eventually, he says. But first he has bigger issues to manage.