Focused on the big picture: Jimmy B. Foster

Editor's Note: This issue's Member Profile features Jimmy B. Foster, P.E., Director of Public Works, City of Plano, Texas; member, APWA Finance Committee and the APWA/IPWEA Task Force; Texas Chapter Delegate and 2nd Vice-Chair of the House of Delegates Executive Committee; and 2005 Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year.

Tell us about your background: I'm a native Texan, having grown up in Grand Prairie (between Dallas and Fort Worth). Dorothy and I have been married for 42 years. We have two sons, Jason and Cory. Jason is a pediatrician in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Cory lives in McKinney, Texas and is in sales. Cory and Jennifer are the parents of our two grandchildren—McKenna, age four, and Cade, age two.

I started my career as a civil engineer with the City of Grand Prairie and served there as City Engineer until 1976. Fascinated by the Rocky Mountains, we then moved to Greeley, Colorado, and then on to a consulting practice in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I returned to Grand Prairie in 1979 to start my own consulting practice. Being self-employed, I had the opportunity for international travel, and I found that I enjoyed the challenges of cross-cultural relationships.

This served to be the stimulus for the next fifteen years of our lives. From 1981 to 1985 we lived and worked in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where I served as the director of a community development project in the "bush" about two hundred miles south of the Sahara Desert. This multi-faceted project involved the construction of an earthen dam for a 65-acre lake and the teaching of literacy, public health and agriculture. Over four hundred volunteers from the United States joined us in this effort. It also required the use of three languages—French, More, and English. Returning to the U.S. in 1985 due to the serious illness of my father, I served as Director of Public Works for the City of Hurst, Texas, until August 1987.

From 1987 to 1990, I lived in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, where I served as Business Manager/Treasurer for our mission in that country. In 1990, I began my work as an internal consultant for humanitarian affairs and crisis management. I advised our overseas personnel regarding humanitarian projects and assisted in the development of disaster relief plans around the world. In 1991/92, I served on a crisis management team to effect the safe release of two hostages held for six months in a Middle-Eastern country. While presenting numerous conferences on crisis management in countries ranging from South Africa to Guatemala, I visited, lived in, or worked in fifty-five countries, including the Sudan, Iraq, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, China, and Mongolia. I also had frequent meetings with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

From July 1995 through July 1999, I served as Director of Public Services for the City of Colleyville, Texas. I was responsible for the Engineering, Community Development (Planning and Zoning), Building Inspection, Code Enforcement, and Public Works (Streets, Drainage, Water, Sewer, and Fleet Maintenance) departments. Being eager to accept a greater challenge in 1999, I was honored to be selected as the Director of Public Works with the City of Plano, Texas, an "All-America City" of over 240,000, north of Dallas. I am responsible for the administration of three divisions (Public Works Operations, Environmental Waste Services, and Equipment Services).

Education: I am a graduate of Grand Prairie High School and a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington. I received a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 1970. I also have a Master of Arts in Missiology (emphasis on cross-cultural communication) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Favorite Book: Managing Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. This book by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard is about situational leadership theory. I used it in my cross-cultural work overseas, and I continue to use it today. It was the main resource for my master's thesis: "The Application of Situational Leadership Theory to Missionary/National Relationships in West Africa."

Hobbies/Interests: I enjoy jogging, but that is becoming more difficult in the hot summer months and the cold winter months. I also enjoy being on the golf course. Notice that I did not say that I enjoy golf. Golf is a very frustrating game, but I still hope to someday be competitive. Like learning to speak French, it's a lifetime endeavor.

I also teach a Bible study class that I really enjoy. I learn more than I teach, but it gives me the opportunity to relate some of my international and cross-cultural experiences, hopefully for the benefit of everyone.

Role Model: My public works role model is Mr. Wendel Hulse, who was Grand Prairie's Director of Public Works when I started my career. Wendel is a model of diplomacy and patience. Those characteristics enabled him to become City Manager and to earn his Doctor of Jurisprudence from S.M.U. He continues his legal practice to this date. Early in my career, Wendel told me, "You can make a mistake. Just don't make the same one twice." That has stuck with me all these years.

Career Accomplishments: Other than what I mentioned earlier, I was privileged to be a member of a five-person delegation representing APWA to the public works officials in Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. I serve as an Observer/Controller with TEEX/NERRTC, an organization that conducts functional and full-scale counter-terrorism exercises throughout Texas and elsewhere. Most recently, I have been asked to serve on the Board of Advisors of the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, my alma mater.

In all honesty, the most significant accomplishment of my career was my work in West Africa. Drilling a well in a small village—where previously the women had to walk ten kilometers to get dirty, polluted water—is by far the most meaningful accomplishment of my career.

Tell us about the City of Plano and its Public Works Department: Plano is a high-quality-of-life city of 245,000 people north of Dallas. It's a city of an equally high reputation. It was named an "All-America City" in 1994 by the National Civic League; "Best City in the U.S. for Home-based Businesses" in 1996 by Home Computing Magazine; 4th Most "Kid Friendly City in the U.S." in 1997 by the organization Zero Population Growth; one of America's "Best Cities for Women" by the Ladies Home Journal; the best city (over 100,000 population) west of the Mississippi River in which to live (CNN Money, 2003); and 9th "Healthiest City for Men" (Men's Health Magazine).

Beginning in 1960, the population of Plano doubled each decade until it reached 220,000 according to the 2000 Census. We are now a community approaching "build-out."

I am responsible for the administration of three divisions (Public Works Operations, Environmental Waste Services, and Equipment Services) comprised of over 300 employees and having combined budgets totaling in excess of $70 million annually. Since 2000, the City has adopted business plans for the Environmental Waste Services Division and the Equipment Services Division. Having received numerous awards, the Environmental Waste Services Division is an industry leader in the United States. The Public Works Operations Division has developed a comprehensive water conservation program and an asset management program.

You have traveled to numerous countries as part of humanitarian aid projects and activities. Would you share some stories about some of your experiences? I have had the good fortune of living in, working in, or visiting fifty-five countries. In the early 1990s the city of Kabul, Afghanistan was under siege by numerous warlords trying to gain control of that post-Soviet Union country. Reports from the field indicated that only the young and the old remained in Kabul, and they were short of food. I traveled to Islamabad and then to Peshawar, Pakistan, where I met a convoy of trucks and fully armed military vehicles ready to take a shipment of food to Kabul. The result? $100,000 worth of food arrived in Kabul for those under siege.

Also in the early 1990s, I went to the Sudan. This was when Osama bin Laden had his training camps there. Prior to arrival I was threatened with strip search and did, in fact, have to give up my passport for four days. The result? We worked with the Sudanese government in getting the design started for the construction of hafirs (subterranean water catchments) for Ethiopian refugees.

Our organization also had a well-drilling project in northern Iraq, among the Kurdish people. There, I met with the valley leader to discuss other needs in his area. While dining with him on his veranda, we watched F-16s dive out of clouds and strafe distant hillsides with machine gun fire. The battle was against an extremist group who believed that terroristic means were needed to gain their political desires. The result? Wells were drilled in northern Iraq and help was realized for their livestock and agriculture.

You are currently a member of APWA's Finance Committee and the APWA/IPWEA Task Force, and have participated on the National Nominating Committee and the International Affairs Committee (Chair, 2003-04). What has your committee work meant to you? It has given me the opportunity to use, in a practical way, the experience and informal education I gained while living and working overseas. It's a way to continue to be of service, to help others gain an understanding of life being lived in difficult circumstances, and to promote the health and well-being of the organization that I have chosen for my professional identity.

Congratulations on receiving APWA's Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year award earlier this year. What's it like being named a Top Ten? Surprising, humbling, honored. It's the most significant award I have ever received. It's the affirmation of a career that has been devoted to service and at least an indicator that some of that service has been meaningful. When I told a friend about this award, she said, "I guess you have now arrived at the top." I responded, "I don't know what the top would look like. It's similar to approaching the Rocky Mountains. You reach the top of one hill only to see a higher one in front of you. Eventually the hills become small mountains. As you reach the top of a mountain you see a higher one in front of you. As you reach the top of the highest mountain around, you hear about an even higher mountain halfway around the world. At some point, the physical body just tells you that you've got to quit climbing mountains. That will be the 'top.'"

Why do you like being a member of APWA? I'm a generalist. I see the big picture, and APWA has allowed me to remain focused on the big picture. Public works is more than projects and technology. It's about people, people's needs, their relationships, their quality of life. I plan to remain active in APWA until the body says it's time to quit. There is much yet to be accomplished. Who knows what the future holds for APWA?