If you want to enter or exit New York City, you’ll have to go through Ernesto Butcher first. As COO of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he oversees the transportation services that allow commuters and visitors to get in and out of the nation’s most densely populated metropolitan area.
Appointed in early February, Butcher, 54, is responsible for the activities of over 5,000 employees at the agency’s facilities, including the George Washington Bridge, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, John F. Kennedy International Airport, the World Trade Center and the ports in New York and New Jersey. With an operating budget of $1.6 billion, he ensures the smooth and safe transit of hundreds of millions of people a year.
Butcher’s varied management experience coupled with a strong commitment to customer service made him a natural choice. As manager of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1985-when crack cocaine use was pervasive in areas such as Times Square-he spearheaded the eight-year, $500 million transformation of the station from a haven for drug users and the homeless to a safe place of business.
But rather than throw vagrants out on the street, he worked with a team to make arrangements with local rehab centers, half-way houses and medical service providers to take them in. “We wanted to provide an alternative, not compound the problem,” he says.
In 1996, as director of the Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals Department, he helped bring about the successful 1997 installation of the $16 million E-Z Pass electronic toll collection system at the Authority’s tunnels and bridges. Now, E-Z users represent as many as 65% of commuters during peak hours.
But Butcher is most proud of the fact that it was done without installing additional toll booths or lowering employee morale. “While this service has resulted in fewer toll collectors than in 1997,” he says, “the reduction was due to the normal attrition rate.”
It’s easy to see where Butcher developed his people-focused approach to business. A native of Panama, he emigrated to the United States at age 17 to further his education. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Hunter College in New York City, he took his desire to understand and help people into the Peace Corps in 1967-the year he became a U.S. citizen. For two years, he lived with a host family in Korea, and taught English to high school and college students.
But a career as a clinical psychologist was not to be. “The Peace Corps gave me a taste of international intrigue and inspired me to take the foreign service exam,” he recalls. Upon his return, the fluent speaker of Spanish, English and Korean went on to earn a master’s in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971. Shortly after graduation, he signed on with the Port Authority as a management trainee. “I needed a job and they were recruiting,” he smiles. “I just considered it a way to bide my time.”
Like his large World Trade Center office suite, trimmed