Industry Raconteur, Provocateur - and, Mon Dieu, Saboteur?
In honor of the 10th anniversary celebration of Parking Today, Founder and Editor John Van Horn agreed to be interviewed as part of research on the history of the parking industry in North America. Individuals or organizations wishing to volunteer their personal comments or organizational histories to this effort may visit www.historyofparking.blogspot.com (now under construction).
John Van Horn tells the story of a school superintendent acquaintance of his who had two elementary schools in his district. One day, for no apparent reason, he switched their principals. The result: Both schools improved.
"I learned from his example," Van Horn recounted during a recent interview. "All change is good."
Van Horn has been an advocate for change - or, as he calls it, "a paradigm shift" - in the parking industry for the last 10 years as editor of Parking Today, the industry's first independent business-to-business magazine.
Variously described as an industry raconteur, provocateur and even saboteur, he replies: "I will print whatever I think is reasonable, but sometimes the movers and shakers in the industry don't think it's reasonable".
Indeed, Van Horn has been a lightning rod for controversy for much of the last decade. Some might say it was in his upbringing. Van Horn's parents relocated to California from the Ozark Mountains of the "Show Me State" of Missouri in 1941. His father became editor of the Fillmore (CA) Herald; his mother, a schoolteacher. After receiving his degree at UCLA, he entered the Army.
"After I got out of the military," he recalls, "I went back to Fillmore and took over the newspaper for my father but was not a good businessman ... But I was fortunate enough to sell it before it went bankrupt. I decided I had to go into the big city to make my fortune."
At once plain-spoken and self-deprecating, Van Horn tells of selling card access control systems in Los Angeles for such firms as Rusco, CardKey, and Wells Fargo Protective Services. His "break in the parking business" as he describes it, came when he started with what was then a fledgling technology firm, Secom.
"We sold a bunch of stuff, security products as well as parking products. But I've always wanted to sell things that are different, and we happened to have some software and products that were more applicable to the parking industry than the security side. Things like automatic fee-computing cash registers and central control through computerized networking. Remember, this was about 30 years ago. Today, computers are everywhere, but in 1978-79, it was unimaginable to have an online computerized system in a [parking] garage."
Though Van Horn had left publishing, publishing had never left him. "Once you've been in the newspaper business, you bleed black," he says. While working on advertising for Secom, he looked at the then-available parking media and saw an opportunity. "There was this great void in the industry. I found out the two existing magazines reached about 3,000 parking folks. And then I went out and did a count of all senior people in the industry and I stopped counting at 35,000. I said, heck, I can do this!"
Leaving Secom after 17 years, Van Horn published his first issue of
Parking Today in April 1996. Looking back on those early issues, Van Horn cringes and judges some of his early work as "juvenile". But, he adds, "some people said Parking Today wouldn't last three issues. At first, we did put in some things just to get noticed, like parking at nude beaches, and other things that poked fun at the industry."
"I think this industry needs poking a little bit. I've been one of the primary pokers and some of the pokees don't like that. We're trying to be fair, but I'm sure there have been cases where people might have gotten a little 'fluffered' around the corners. We're just trying to bring in a little information here, but from time to time, I get a little impatient about what goes on."
Impatience with the way the national organizations run their exhibitions prompted another innovation: the Parking Industry Exhibition (PIE). As Van Horn remembers it, "I started getting complaints from the vendors about the trade shows. One show was dwindling due to mergers and acquisitions; the other sort of took vendors for granted and wasn't growing."
After offering to work with both organizations - the National Parking Association and the International Parking Institute - to change their approach and being rebuffed, Van Horn created the PIE as a way to bring more parking professionals and non-industry types, such as building owners, into contact with the industry. He has long advocated combining the two organizations, or at least the three national trade shows, even if it means a change in his own. "It only makes sense to combine the shows," he says, "but in the end, for that to happen, the exhibitors are going to have to demand it."
The standoff between the two national organizations has been a pet peeve. Long an industry scold, Van Horn bluntly declares: "They don't represent the industry; they represent their members. No one represents the industry.
"Remember, the NPA thinks the IPI members are its customers. And they are, on balance. Central Parking, an NPA member, for example, runs a city operation or a hospital; which are members of the IPI. The NPA perceives itself as an organization of parking operators, so by that definition, it excludes its customers. The opposite is also true.
"If either organization wants to represent the industry, they need to think beyond their memberships and reach out. They can't see some of the folks in parking as vendors, or customers, or operators. They need to see them simply as part of our industry. So there has to be a shift in the thinking of both organizations for them to merge, even to merge the shows. We are all part of this ... industry."
A desire to foster this sense of industry led Van Horn to establish the Temecula Parking Group (TPG). "I wanted to develop a parking think tank where people could just get together and talk about parking stuff," he says. "There are about 25 or so members and maybe 15 to 18 show up each year. We share a common concern about our industry. I didn't have a goal when I started. If we could just get together, talk, have some fellowship, play some golf, I thought that would be great."
However, he had unknowingly tapped into a deep vein of discontent in the industry. In speaking of how the industry presents itself to the outside world and the level of professionalism within the industry, he says: "The dirty little secret is we're not very competent at what we do. It's an industry, and most don't think of it as that. That has to change."
The Temecula Parking Group, a random cross-section of NPA and IPI members and other industry insiders, quickly coalesced around some key issues. "The group moved away from what I originally had planned and the second year became more militant. This was not what I wanted because this meant we had to think and work a little harder and that took time away from golf and cocktail hour. But we decided we needed to do more to shake up the major organizations and to emphasize that the industry didn't have a spokesperson and needed one. We need to put out some PR on the industry, get some positive stories out there. So we wrote a 'white paper' on this to the two organizations to get them involved."
Neither formally responded to the TPG's recommendations. Though disappointed, Van Horn says the group will again approach the two organizations. It will offer to help establish and fund a public relations effort aimed at the non-parking world. The message: Parking is a profession. And it will suggest ways to solve the No. 1 problem that the TPG believes is holding back the industry: the lack of quality people and operations that give the industry a bad reputation.
Van Horn scoffs at the idea that TPG has any designs on replacing or destroying either organization, nor is he applying for the job of spokesperson. "The only detriment we have ever been is that we point out by our simple existence that something is missing. It's not the intent of the TPG to become a membership organization," Van Horn insists. "We can become a catalyst for change and a repository for information, if the major organizations don't want to do that."
His greatest fear, Van Horn says, is that continuing industry complacency will lead to the worst kind of change: government intervention. "What's going to happen is the feds are going to come in, the state is going to come in. It's already starting to happen. San Francisco is locking down garages and putting in its own audit trails. I don't want to see the government set rules for the industry. The medical industry polices itself. The architects police themselves. Why in the hell can't the parking industry police itself?"
"I know I paint with a broad brush. There are good people in all parts of the industry, however we need to strive for excellence. Its that excellence that will attract good people, and that will change how the world views us. We are a service industry. The worldview is extremely important."
Charles R. Munn, C.A.P.P., C.P.F.M., is a former parking consultant.
He can be reached at email@example.com.