‘Better to push back and not run away from the problem’

ARC chief talks public and private sector jobs, transit, personal crises.


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It’s one thing to deal with a public tragedy when a Midtown sinkhole kills two people. It’s quite another when you have to confront a loved one’s medical emergency at the same time.

Doug Hooker had to have a game plan for both calamities earlier in his career when he headed the city of Atlanta's public works department. How he handled it may help others who face gut-wrenching events that disrupt lives.

Now 60, Hooker is executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the 10-county planning agency responsible for coming up with solutions to the area’s ever-worsening traffic congestion. He talks about that issue, as well the important moments in a career that has spanned the public and private sectors.

Q: What early experiences influenced you?

A: I was born in Moultrie, Georgia, but I grew up in Cincinnati. My father was a police officer, one of the early African-Americans on the Cincinnati police force. At that time, African-American patrolmen did not get a car. They had to do a walking beat in an African-American community.

They couldn’t arrest whites. My father could detain a white doing something criminal, but he would have to call a white officer to make an official arrest.

We never heard my father complain about his experiences on the job. He would always say that you can never let your race or someone else’s prejudice be an excuse for you not doing your best job.

Q: What did you learn from your mother?

A: My mother was an elementary school teacher. She was assigned to a poor white area made up of predominantly Appalachian families who moved to Cincinnati after World War II.

This was in the early 1960s, and she had to figure out a way to have the parents know that she cared about their children. She would go to their houses. Here’s this black woman who’s knocking on their door. Often, the conversation was through a screen door.

“When they saw I really cared,” she said, “they were willing to open up and trust me. When you’re trying to work with people, people don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

My mother’s lesson was — don’t worry about how someone else sees you because of your skin color. That’s their problem. You have to see them as a human being and do the right thing by them.

Q: You went to Georgia Tech and encountered a professor doing the wrong thing. What happened?

A: I started out in chemical engineering for three years, but had an incident in my classroom that was clear discrimination. I didn't know how to cope with it.

There were three minorities in my class grouping of a few hundred chemical engineering students. There was an older, white professor. We couldn’t understand why our test scores were lower than the white students who had similar answers. What are we missing?

Then, it happened again. All the students, not just the three minorities, wondered why. In open class, the professor said to the minorities, “I think this material is kind of hard for you people.”

Everyone, including my white peers, was stunned. I went to the dean, but he didn’t do anything.

I was feeling desperate. So I literally walked across the campus and transferred to the mechanical engineering program. It took me an extra year to graduate because I lost some credits.

Q: Looking back on that experience, what did you learn?

A: I almost quit school and went home, but I told myself I couldn't do that.

Later on, I processed that it’s better to push back and not run away from the problem.

But that was when I was a little more mature. Back then, frankly, I was a just a scared kid trying to figure out how to grow up.

Q: You grew up by using your mechanical engineering degree to get hired at Georgia Power and rise up the supervisory ranks. You then got an MBA at Emory and applied for a management job at a Decatur chemical company that was growing fast. What did you learn from your hiring experience there?

A: During the interview, I asked about the job description and which box I fit into.

But the HR head who was interviewing me said: “We’re trying to build stone walls, not brick walls. Every brick in a brick wall is the exact same shape. But people are not bricks. People are like stones. They have individual shapes, sizes and strengths.

“A good stone mason figures out the best place for that stone to fit, and he builds the wall around that stone. We want a company that has a lot of good people with all their individualities.”

Bonus questions

Q: You worked at the chemical firm for four years before going into the public sector as the city of Atlanta’s deputy public works commissioner. Then, after you became head of the department, two crises hit at the same time — one public and one private. What happened?

A: By 1991, I had an engineering, energy policy and business management background. I was hired as the No. 2 person in the public works department of Mayor Maynard Jackson, and was in charge of operations. About two years later, when the public works commissioner was reassigned, I became interim commissioner of the department.

Thirty days after that, there was a huge sinkhole at a hotel parking lot in Midtown at 14th Street and Techwood Drive. It set off a panic.

A sewer collapsed, creating a 60-foot deep hole that was about 200 feet wide. Two people died. This was in 1993, the Olympics were coming here and it made national news.

What people didn’t know is that I had to put my wife in the hospital with a very high fever that would not go down. It turned out that she was having an allergic reaction from a medicine that was poisoning her body. Her temperature got up to almost 105 degrees, which is very serious for an adult.

Q: How did you deal with both issues simultaneously?

A: I was living 16 hours at the sinkhole site and eight hours at the hospital at night. We sent the kids up to Cincinnati with my mother.

I told my secretary, who was a long-time employee who knew what she was doing, that she and the heads of the three bureaus in the department had to handle the other business while I dealt with the sinkhole.

I assembled a team at the site. We had to work it methodically. We had to stabilize and shore it up, so it didn’t collapse any more. We also had to figure out what went wrong and who was at fault.

Meanwhile, my wife was having a really tough time. She was in the hospital for almost two weeks and then she was confined to bed rest at home for the next four months.

Q: So what did you do that others can learn from?

A: I just tried to take it a minute at a time. It was tough.

The lesson is — don’t be afraid to admit that you’re in a situation that you don’t fully understand.

Invite people to help. My sister-in-law, church members and friends set up a regular rotation during the day to help out with my wife. My mother was taking care of the kids. Fortunately, my wife had no lasting damage.

Q: After the sinkhole crisis, you continued to head the public works department until 1997. Since then, your career has taken several turns, from starting your own management consulting business to getting high-ranking positions at engineering firms. You also were in charge of the State Road & Tollway Authority from 2003 to 2005 and have directed the Atlanta Regional Commission since 2011. What have you learned about advancing your career?

A: One of the most important lessons I ever learned is that no matter how good you are at what you do, there comes a point in time when the organization doesn't see your value the same way.

Then you have three choices — you can stay and hope it will get better again, you can go to a different part of the organization that will appreciate you, or you can leave the organization altogether for somebody who will value what you already have.

It’s not that you’ve changed, but organizations change over time and people who brought you to the dance aren’t necessarily going to be there later on.

There are always inflection points to ask if you are you being seen with the same value. If not, what are you going to do about it?

Q: What are you and other leaders in metro Atlanta going to do about traffic congestion, which has been getting worse year after year and will require billions of dollars to address?

A: Nobody solves congestion. What you want to do is make people's travel time more predictable. You also want to provide a lot more options, including more transit. Our transportation system is not doing that and our reliability is degrading each year with us not putting in a substantial investment to unbottle this.

You have to start somewhere. I think Georgians and their politicians are practical people. I think the leadership in the state will make a serious run at trying to add new funding for transportation. I think the problem will start to get resolved in a positive way.