J. Michael Robison is leading the effort to bring streetcars back to Peachtree Street.
Heavy traffic would seem to be a boon to J. Michael Robison's business, Lanier Parking Systems, ensuring plenty of demand for the approximately 200,000 parking spaces in 33 cities managed by the Atlanta-based company.
But Robison, BSM '97, doesn't view it that way. He always strives to see the big picture, in which smart growth is achieved by balancing single-occupancy vehicles with mass-transit options. "You just can't have everybody driving," says Robison, Lanier's CEO. "Anybody who just wants to park a lot of cars is going to choke off growth because of traffic congestion."
As the founder and chair of Atlanta Streetcar Inc., Robison is a local leader in the effort to get people out of their vehicles. This nonprofit organization is well on its way to restoring long-gone streetcar service along Atlanta's most famous road, Peachtree Street, from downtown to Buckhead, complementing existing mass-transit options.
Robison's business is committed to mass transit as well. Employing 5,000 people, Lanier is perhaps the only parking-management company to have an entire division devoted to alternative transportation. In addition to designing, managing and staffing parking decks, Lanier provides discounted MARTA cards for employees of client companies and coordinates carpooling and vanpooling programs.
Next year Lanier will begin offering car-sharing services at all of its parking facilities, allowing mass-transit passengers the opportunity to rent a car by the hour if they need go to the doctor or run an errand during the day. The company also works with federal agencies to reimburse people for taxi rides home if they miss their carpools. "We're removing barriers to mass transit for people who feel they've got to drive," Robison explains.
People often ask him if these kinds of programs hurt his business. But alternative transportation is a business in itself, he notes. "We don't think we're robbing Peter to pay Paul," he says. "We're about creating value. Parking profits are just short-term profits. Creating value is how you grow the pie bigger and bigger without totally clogging up the transportation infrastructure. Everybody's grabbing for their piece of the pie when we should be concentrating on how we can grow it."
Lanier's focus on alternative transportation recently paid off handsomely, helping the company land the parking contract for the 8,000-space underground deck in the hot new Midtown development, Atlantic Station. "It was a real coup for us," says Robison, who's also excited about other local parking projects, including the forthcoming Georgia Aquarium (the world's largest) and the 41-tower Symphony Center. "The more complex the project, the better Lanier is for it."
He began his career in the parking business while still a student at Georgia Tech. After working in management for another parking company, the entrepreneurially-minded Robison struck out on his own in 1989, using his savings to purchase an 18-space parking lot downtown, an investment that helped him buy dozens of additional lots within a few years.
His considerable success in the field led him to cut way back on his studies, so it ultimately took him 14 years (on and off) to finish his bachelor's degree. Though Lanier (named for a distant relative of his) would eventually become the largest parking company in Georgia, Robison still felt he needed the degree for his family to consider him a success.
Because he'd already gained plenty of real-world experience, he was surprised to find that the Scheller College of Business could still teach him a great deal about business, from marketing to organizational structure to human resources. "I'm convinced that I wouldn't have been nearly as successful without my Georgia Tech education," he says.
A native of Atlanta, Robison lives in Buckhead with his wife, Kristy; seven-year-old daughter, Julia; and four-year-old son, Jack. "This is a great age for kids, so my golf clubs are temporarily on the shelf," says the 41-year-old architecture buff. "On weekends, I enjoy taking the kids to Piedmont Park, spending the day riding scooters and eating ice cream."
Streetcar rides along Peachtree should soon be another form of amusement for the family, not to mention an efficient means of transportation. "If everything goes according to plan, the trains are going to be running within 36 months," Robison says. "This is clearly one of the biggest alternative transportation projects that the city has ever conceived."