It’s apt that we got to connect with Tracy MacPhee, the Director of Passenger Operations at Ontario Northland for our final instalment of the Most Inspirational Women in Bus and Coach series.
Over time, we have been fortunate enough to get to know Tracy, as Ontario Northland is one of Betterez's valued clients. We have experienced firsthand her ethos of building great relationships with everyone she encounters.
As a woman and leader who’s paved out an impressive career and made a name for herself in the transportation industry, we wanted to spend a bit more time with Tracy to talk about her journey, get her thoughts on the industry and where it’s going, as well as find out what she’s looking forward to achieving with Ontario Northland in the future.
Career Background and Current Role
Tracy launched her career into transportation straight out of college, with her first role at Northwest Airlines as a customer service agent laying the foundation for positions that have followed.
During her tenure at Ontario Northland, she worked her way up from a Manager of Service Development to her current position, which she’s now held for 5 years. Ontario Northland offers passenger and freight transport throughout Northern Ontario onboard its motor coach and railway services.
In a not so small nutshell, Tracy’s day-to-day includes overseeing bus and rail operations, planning for future services, putting out fires for current issues that may be happening, and deciphering huge amounts of data to tell a story out of it.
She also ensures everything runs within budget, and that her extensive team of over 100 drivers and managers are motivated and inspired, focusing on the organization's bigger picture. That is, to make sure it can provide services to all the areas they cover, and to find the most efficient operational processes to improve and evolve the business.
“We don’t just do things this way because we’ve done it in the past, we like to challenge the norm.”
If managers want to lead new programs, Tracy encourages them to come up with new ideas and is the type of leader that lets them shine. The plan is to not just stick with the plan, and it takes thinking big to drive new results in business.
Q&A With Tracy MacPhee
Let’s go back to the beginning. What was your first role? What was the journey like to get where you are?
I’ve led a very exciting and engaging career in transportation. I actually started out in the airline industry 24 years ago, working for a regional US carrier in the Maritimes as a customer service agent. It was here that I got to travel and gain exposure to different cultures and customer service expectations, as well as learn more about the different travel options.
After 6 years of learning the ropes and gaining experience, I moved on to start working in operations for one of Canada’s largest and busiest international airports, YVR. Two roles in five years at the airport expanded on my customer service and operational grounding. It was during this time that I met my husband.
We were both travelling on an airplane and he was moving back to North Bay, I had never heard of North Bay. He had a paddle magazine, and I said, ‘are you a paddler?’ The rest, as you say, is history. I quit my job and moved to Ontario in 2005. Together we established roots and started our family.
When I was ready, I was able to get onboard with Ontario Northland as a customer service manager. Since then, I have had the chance to share my skills and expertise in customer service and passenger operations working in the bus and rail transportation segments.
In one word, describe yourself.
Genuine – what you see is what you get. I wear my heart on my sleeve. There’s no hiding my emotions.
As a female leader in transportation, what were some of the unique challenges you faced on your journey to get where you are today?
Two things. The first was overcoming male-dominated roles in the rail and bus industry. The second was proving you can be new and effective in a role, even if you haven’t been involved in a specific operation previously. I had to forge special relationships, both inside and outside of the company. These relationships developed into a network of people who are now my advocates and who I rely on to get stuff done.
Who or what has shaped who you are?
It may sound corny, but no one person has shaped me professionally. Everyone I have worked with has made an impact, and based on my building relationships, I've been able to take something and give something. I’m also a firm believer in continuously learning.
“I truly try to learn something from everyone and that helps to shape who I am as a mother, colleague, friend, employee and leader.”
What's your favourite part of your job?
I love connecting one on one with our customers, helping those who may need a little extra time in planning their trips. One customer who really stands out is a woman who is visually impaired, we’ve developed a relationship over time and I personally like talking to her and helping her organize her travel. I feel it’s important to be connected to customers, it helps me in my role as Director to have these one on one interactions.
Overall, I am very passionate about the customer experience – it truly guides all my interactions both internally and externally. It’s not just helping people within work, but outside the industry too.
What do your customers love about Ontario Northland? What makes the company unique?
Image from Facebook - Polar Bear Express
We offer warm, friendly service. You get to speak with a person in Northern Ontario when you call our toll-free number. Our frontline staff know our system so well, and go above and beyond when it comes to assisting customers or answering questions.
Our drivers also get a lot of praise for their ability to drive through the harsh weather conditions that Northern Ontario is known for.
We have 750 employees, 35 buses, and cover a huge territory from James Bay Coast to as far north as Hearst, and west as White River. That’s 4.3 million miles a year. Every single day we cover more than the distance across Canada with our routes - it’s the only way to do long-distance travel in many of these regions.
With the rise of disruptive technology and new potential competitors, bus companies are now being forced to rethink how they operate. What are some of the challenges you have had to tackle and how will Ontario Northland stay relevant to customers?
We try to stay as current as we can with the latest trends related to motor coach operations. Implementing technology such as track my bus, online schedules, online ticketing and firm and flex pricing, audiovisual announcements, are all examples of recent technological enhancements that are visible to the passenger. We've also done a lot of work behind the scenes to bring our processes and data collection practices up to current standards.
Our customers are our most valuable source of information and I’m always looking for ways to collect information from them, gather and share their feedback, and truly make their journey a memorable one.
Do you have a key piece of advice that has helped you over the years which you would like to share with other aspiring female leaders?
Yes, foster your relationships. Create a network of support as you never know when you will need to turn to someone for help or assistance.
Also, to support one another. All of us come from varying backgrounds and experiences and I truly feel the more we support one another, the stronger we all become.
If you were to take a leap into the future, after everything is said and done, what’s the one thing you want people to remember about how you shaped Ontario Northland?
I want everyone to remember the passenger services team I’ve been part of at Ontario Northland. We have done some incredible work over the last few years, implementing new systems, ticketing software, trying new products, welcoming new equipment and processes. Together we have led an expansion of bus routes that added over 1 million kilometres a year and expanded to over 150 communities.
Lastly, what has been your most memorable travel experience?
While I was fortunate to be able to travel to other countries and have some pretty cool experiences when I worked for the airlines, the most memorable has to be a sea kayaking trip in Canada. I booked a trip to paddle around the Broken Group Islands in the Pacific Rim National Park in British Columbia. The amazing sea life and nature I encountered is something I will never forget.
Reflecting on this interview, we understand how Tracy has earned her role at Ontario Northland. With her focus on relationships and people, it’s no wonder that the business has evolved and continued to expand, adapting to changing customer needs.
We would like to thank Tracy for sharing her insights with us, and look forward to being part of Ontario Northland's journey forward.
If you’d like to read any of our previous articles in the Most Inspirational Women in Bus and Coach series, browse our blog category. Alternatively, if you are interested in seeing how Betterez can drive your coach bus business forward, find out more about our platform solutions here.