Help Wanted: Executive to turn around hopelessly derailed transit agency, mollify countless politicians with conflicting agendas, avoid getting tarred in mushrooming financial scandal, and do all of the above under intense media scrutiny.
If that sounds like a job you’d pass up, you’re not alone.
Since the search began in January for a new Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief, two candidates have turned down the post. And out of nearly 100 executives approached about it, fewer than 25 percent expressed any interest.
“I’m not exaggerating … I’ve handled more than 3,000 positions in the public sector, and this was the most difficult,” said Norman Roberts, president of Norman Roberts and Associates, the Century City-based firm hired to head the nationwide search for a new CEO.
Finding a candidate to fill the MTA’s top post has become as difficult as getting the trouble-plagued Los Angeles subway project under control. Roberts said the search has been suspended indefinitely following the recent withdrawal of New York transit executive Michael Ascher as a candidate. The following day, the MTA board appointed turnaround specialist Julian Burke as interim CEO.
“You have an organization whose reputation, with problems both at the governing level and at an operational level, are known nationally,” explained Roberts, who has been in the business of recruiting executives for 28 years. “Because of that, it really required that the board extend itself, both in the economic package and in the authority of the position to attract candidates.”
Ascher turned down the job Aug. 21 after reportedly insisting on a $235,000 salary and a $100,000 “signing bonus.” His decision came as a surprise to some, especially in the mayor’s office, where an aide to Riordan had said just a day earlier that the mayor was confident that Ascher would accept the post.
In May, Riordan’s choice for the CEO spot, Bechtel Corp. executive Theodore Weigle Jr., turned down the job after weeks of negotiations. He was being offered considerably more than Ascher about $60,000 more, or around $300,000 a year, according to a source close to the negotiations because of his experience as an engineer.
According to Roberts, one of the most trying issues in the negotiations with Ascher was getting the 13-member MTA board to come to an agreement on salary issues, including Ascher’s demands that the agency pay the cost of the boat he would have been forced to leave behind in New York.
Executive recruiters say the job of finding a new CEO might be all but impossible at this point. The agency has received so much bad publicity that anyone qualified to run it is unlikely to be interested.
David Radden, a partner at Ray & Berndtson in Century City and a 19-year veteran of executive searches, said the MTA board needs to be honest with itself about its own problems and come up with solutions before it can reasonably expect to find a candidate. Even then, it will be an uphill struggle.
“I’m not sure the job is doable … that we could find someone that I truly believe, given the circumstances, would be attracted to it. It’s almost a no-win situation now,” Radden said.
Two principal problems exist in the MTA recruiting crisis, said another executive search expert.
“One, the compensation is incredibly low relative to the marketplace and two, the bureaucratic decision-making brass is almost intolerable,” said Gary Walberger, vice president at Korn Ferry International a Century City-based excutive search firm. “The result is that you end up finding candidates that are willing to put up with a lot, but they’re not the most qualified.”
Roberts said he will retain his duties as recruiter for the MTA post, but has been asked by the mayor’s office to suspend the search until certain issues such as pending state legislation to reduce the MTA board from 13 members to nine are resolved.