The Biggest Company You Never Heard Of
By John Van Horn
“We’re the biggest company you never heard of.” Julie Dixon, West Coast Operations Manager for Serco, describes her employer. With over six billion in global sales, the company works behind the scenes with governments at every level to assist agencies with their outsourcing.
According to the company’s web site, Serco “designs, delivers and manages change in markets as diverse as defense, transport, civil government, science and the private sector. It improves patient care with our health services; rehabilitates offenders in our prisons; protects borders through technology; provides swift, safe travel with our trains and transport systems; helps young people learn in the schools and training centers it manages; it enables trade by the precise measurements undertaken by its scientists. “
Although the web site doesn’t mention parking, Dixon notes that Serco is deeply involved in on-street revenue collection and enforcement in San Francisco, West Hollywood, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Washington DC area.
“We are a one stop shop that partners with vendors to develop technology requested by the municipality,” says Dixon. “Often cities require solutions that don’t match a single vendor’s product. We provide specifications and then work with multiple vendors to reach a solution. SFpark in San Francisco is an example.”
Serco has been with the city since 1994, and began by collecting money from the city’s old mechanical meters. In 2002, the company provided a complete turnkey parking meter solution, including a central, integrated database, and, according to Dixon, a completely auditable system.
“In ten years of Serco operating the system, the meter revenue increase was more than 400%. Of course there were rate increases but they locked down revenues, procured meters with programmable smart locks, and ensured that every cent was collected.
“We created customized routes for collection and by analyzing revenue day by day, meter by meter, we knew how much should be collected from each meter. We were able to determine when a meter was filling and ensure that a meter never went down because the vault was full. This kept us on top of the revenues and ahead of the collection curve.
“Because we evaluate the performance statistics, we were able to concentrate our efforts where the impact was greatest. Rates were set based on usage, time, and day. For instance, by analyzing on street collections around San Francisco’s new ball park, we were able to implement rate changes that had a direct impact on revenue and space availability.”
“We found that in many of our client cities, it was better to adjust time, rather than rates. For instance, provide free parking from 10 at night to 8 in the morning, rather than from 8 to 8. Revenue jumped, but the change was more politically acceptable,” said Dixon.
When asked about the new SFpark program and the changing of rates by day, by hour, and by location Dixon acknowledged the challenge. “It’s about information dissemination, including branding and signage. We have worked with a marketing company, (Words Pictures Ideas in San Francisco) and a company that specializes in signage & graphics (Pictoform from Vancouver, BC) that explains complex concepts simply. Pictoform has worked with one Northwest city and increased the revenue by 22% simply by changing the signage.
“We are fortunate that the people in the San Francisco area are very information savvy. They use smart phones, are at ease with many web applications and seem to be aware of the changes taking place with the parking system. SF is working hard to communicate the changes to the drivers in various high tech ways.
“Sure there are technology challenges, but we have the ability to put different vendors together and change direction quickly when necessary. San Francisco probably has some of the most geographically challenging real estate on the planet. We are changing the way on street parking is done. The new meters and parking sensors are connected, in real time, to the central data base, giving a new way to communicate with parkers to tell them where space is available. We are proposing using similar technology developed for the San Francisco area in Los Angeles to provide applications for cell phones that can tell people where spaces are available.”
“SF Park has been a long process, but we are confident that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and are sure it’s not a train coming at us.”
Serco sees itself as a partner with each of its municipal customers. In West Hollywood, CA, they provide all on-street parking enforcement services. Her staff wears uniforms and drive vehicles with West Hollywood logos. But they are all Serco employees. “Any issues with maintenance, training, and personnel are ours, not the city’s,” says Dixon.
“We want vendors to be successful and work with them to help them succeed. It’s to no one’s advantage for a vendor to fail. SFpark, for instance, is cutting edge. It’s the first of its kind. We had bumps along the way. Being a private company we were able to work through problems that would have been difficult for the public sector to handle.
In West Hollywood, Serco provides a “soup to nuts” parking enforcement services. They provide enforcement personnel, customer service, hybrid enforcement vehicles, foot patrol, bike enforcement, and all the equipment necessary including license plate recognition systems for scofflaw enforcement and special event service support.
In Chicago the company provides supplemental enforcement for nights, weekends and special events. Serco supports the meter collection services in Los Angeles and also provides collections and enforcement programs in Prince Georges County, Maryland and the surrounding areas.
“We work with cities to simplify what can be complicated. The fact that we are in the private sector gives us flexibility in hiring, training, purchasing, and research and development,” says Dixon. “Serco has tremendous depth in working with governments at all levels, as well as the private sector. We draw on that experience and work behind the scenes. If you haven’t heard of us, we are doing our job right.”
Article Abstract from March, 2011