Beyond the Boardroom

Conversations with leaders who transcend traditional business

The man who makes New York move

February 27, 2012: 10:53 AM ET

Port Authority director Patrick Foye discusses his plans to get some of the United States' most densely populated areas running right.

FORTUNE -- It's hard to imagine a more difficult leadership problem to tackle than transit logistics in New York and New Jersey. But Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey insists that his job is not a nightmare. That's despite being in charge of an organization that oversees the major airports in both states, all of the bridges and tunnels connecting them, the PATH train line, and owns 90% of one of the World Trade Center buildings.

It's a worthwhile challenge, he says, and it's one he's prepared for after holding leadership positions in the private sector and serving as Governor Cuomo's Deputy Secretary for Economic Development. Foye started his new job at Port Authority in November 2011. He speaks with Fortune about his plans to get some of the United States' most densely populated areas running right.

Fortune: So you started just a few months ago. What are some of the unexpected challenges of the job?

Patrick Foye: The thing I would start with is that this agency was attacked twice by terrorists. Once in 1993 and then again on 9/11. The government is not a natural real estate developer, but as a result of decisions made originally by Governor Rockefeller in 1960, we owned and developed the World Trade Center site. We're doing the same thing for the second time. The memory of 9/11, appropriately, weighs heavily on the veterans here.

How do you keep people safe from seemingly unpredictable acts of violence?

I'm not going to give you an exact number, but billions of dollars have gone into hardening and protecting our existing assets from a homeland security point of view. One World Trade Center, when it is completed, is going to be the most secure class-A office building in the world, and we've spent every dollar necessary to achieve that goal. The building is scheduled to be complete in the fourth quarter of 2013 or the first quarter of 2014.

That's soon. What other projects have you worked on in your first three months?

One of the things we did this week was announce a "Wall of Shame" for toll evaders, which are largely commercial truckers; we put them up on the Internet. Now, part of the story is shame on the Port Authority for not having been more proactive in the past. But frankly, people, truckers especially, who had been engaged in a deliberate and willful business strategy to avoid tolls, have been calling and putting up the white flag and saying, 'How much to I owe and who do I write a check to?'"

Will the "Wall of Shame" make a difference to Port Authority?

Well look, one, I think over a period of years, it's tens of millions of dollars. That's a lot of money. Two, we've got to send the message that we're serious, that we're focused, that we're vigilant. Not collecting tolls from the people who owe us is totally inconsistent with that. And those dollars are desperately needed here.

Are there any changes you plan on making internally?

One of the criticisms on the Port Authority in the past is that there had been secrecy about compensation. We're now reporting that quarterly and putting it on our website. In a different place than the "Wall of Shame," but it's on the same website.

There is way too much process here. And in my opinion, we're way too slow. One of the things I'm very focused on is increasing the speed. The businesses that Fortune writes about operate in a world where real-time, fast decision-making is necessary for survival, and government often doesn't operate at the same pace. It has to. That doesn't mean being reckless, but being more responsive.

How do you personally manage such massive projects?

The way to manage it is to be very granular, break it into pieces. On the large projects, I've asked for reports every week on the number of days to completion that we've lost or gained that week. On the World Trade Center, I get daily reports on the number of pieces of steel fabricated, delivered, and erected each day.

That is quite granular.

I'm hands-on, for better or worse. I think better. I've worked in Type-A organizations my whole life. It's just the way I am. That's why I get daily steel reports. I want information now, in real time.

During your experiences at all of those "Type-A organizations," what's the most important thing you've learned about leadership?

I've been in leadership positions in big organizations and in medium-sized organizations and I'm a leader -- not the leader, I'm a leader -- of my family, which is one wife and three children. And I've learned that it is far tougher to manage a small organization than a large one.

Tougher to manage four people than a major metropolitan transit system?

I've been at a law firm with over 1,000 employees, the Port Authority has 7,000 employees, and managing family issues with a spouse and three children is way harder. It's my story and I'm sticking with it.

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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