Profiles in Business
Transit Company Exec Is Driven to SucceedPeter A. Picknelly and his wife, Melissa, have a long-standing, built-in Friday date-night routine — only there’s nothing routine about it.
Each week, it’s a different restaurant, all within roughly 45 minutes of their home in Springfield, and Peter’s in charge of picking the venue and, essentially, providing the surprises. They come in the form of usually smaller, lesser-known establishments that he finds via a combination of referrals and exhaustive research.
Through that mix, he has found such gems, as he calls them, as the Mill at 2T in Tariffville, Conn., the Trattoria Rustica in Pittsfield, and Cavey’s in Manchester, Conn., all of which have made his very-much-unofficial list of favorites. “We get a kick out of finding new ones, and try not to go to the same one twice in a year,” he said. “And we hardly ever miss a Friday — only if there’s kid issues.”
Picknelly, third-generation president of Peter Pan Bus Lines, the regional transit business started by his grandfather, Peter C. Picknelly, is quick to point out that, while he’s ventured far out of the Springfield area to find new places for date-night dinners, he’s still quite partial to established eateries in and around the City of Homes. “I’m at the Fort five days a week for lunch,” he said, acknowledging that he’s exaggerating slightly, but that on those days when he’s not at that downtown Springfield landmark, he’s at one of several other nearby restaurants.
And he’s almost always there with a manager from Peter Pan Bus Lines, either a direct report or one of another few dozen department administrators. These are working luncheons for the most part, and, for Picknelly, learning opportunities.
“I bring a list of things to discuss,” he told BusinessWest. “We talk about business and family. I never leave without some tidbit of information that helps me understand the business better.”
All this time in restaurants serves to help Picknelly better focus on the two most important aspects of his life — family and the family business (the community and service to it would place a close third) — and to do what he thinks he might do best: plan.
“I’m definitely a planner,” he said, adding that this goes for his family, Peter Pan, and a host of other business ventures with which he’s involved. “And with the family, it’s vacations that I love planning; I know where we’ll be vacationing a year from now.”
That would be Tuscany in Italy, the first European excursion for the family as a unit, meaning Peter, Melissa, and their four children — Lauren and Alyssa (13-year-old twins), Peter (that’s Peter D.), 10, and Olyvia, 7. Together, they’ve been to several spots on this side of the Atlantic, including the Bahamas, Mexico, and, most recently, Costa Rica.
‘Planning’ is a term that may also be applied to Picknelly’s affinity for high-end sports cars — very high-end. The burgundy Ferrari F4-30 (license plate: PETER) now in the Peter Pan parking lot will soon be replaced by the Italian automaker’s 2010 4-58 Italia model, this one blue, and, reportedly, the first one in New England.
Picknelly, who says he’ll get nearly what he paid for the F4-30 when he turns it in, has owned a variety of fast cars over the years, including a few Lotuses and Jaguars, choices far different from his father (the late Peter L. Picknelly), who was, as most in the region know, partial to Rolls-Royces.
“I can’t see me driving one of those,” said Picknelly, adding that he hasn’t emulated his father in several other ways — he believes he’s a much better delegater and family man, for example — but took a number of life and business lessons from him.
BusinessWest will elaborate on those and other points as it continues its Profiles in Business series with a look at someone who’s a driving force in local business and the community — literally and figuratively.
In the Clutch
As he talked about the many nuances of life in a family business, Picknelly noted that there are advantages and disadvantages, and they often go hand in hand.
He acknowledged that many people look at second-, third-, or fourth-generation managers of family businesses and conclude that things have been handed to them, and that they are perhaps not as worthy of praise for their exploits as someone who started from scratch and built his or her own company.
“And there’s something to that, certainly,” he noted. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for my father and grandfather; I know that I’ve been incredibly fortunate. If you were to go out right now and hire a president for Peter Pan, I’m not sure I’d make the cut.
“That said, I’m quite sure that you couldn’t find anyone who would work harder in this job than me,” he continued, adding that part of what drives him is that recognition of the fact that, to many, it’s simply his last name that is responsible for his title and success.
“It does push me a little harder,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s when people say I can’t do something that I try to prove them wrong.”
While Picknelly says he’s been helped by the Peter Picknellys who preceded him, he’s had to earn his stripes. And that meant starting at the bottom, which, in the bus business, means cleaning, or ‘dumping’ (that’s the technical term), the toilets in the back of the vehicles.
“Yeah, I did that — I’ve done just about every job in the company,” said Picknelly, noting that he started working in the garage on weekends and during the summer when he was just 13. He would later go on to take a number of different positions, from dispatcher to manager of the company’s then-much-smaller Boston operation when he was a student at Boston University. Years ago, he actually drove a bus on occasion when the company was short-handed and needed someone, but hasn’t done that for decades, and couldn’t now because his standard Class 2 license wouldn’t credential him to do so.
He kept moving up the ladder, and eventually assumed the title of president several years ago, when his father became chairman.
Over the past several years, he’s strived to continue growing Peter Pan, even in the face of mounting competition from new carriers, and even improved rail service to many cities the company serves.
“The business has changed considerably over the years … it is more competitive now than perhaps it ever was,” he said. “We just have to put ourselves in a position to succeed.”
As Picknelly mentioned, he took a number of life and business lessons from his father, and far more of the latter than the former. One of the keys from that realm was achieving diversity in one’s business portfolio, as a hedge against the vagaries of the economy and society in general, he said.
The younger Picknelly has accomplished this through both acquisition and new-business development. In the first category are purchases of companies including Camfour, a firearms distributor based in Westfield; Belt Technologies, an Agawam-based maker of metal belts and pulleys for several applications, including aerospace, medical equipment, and food processing; another firearms distributor in Austin, Texas; and a woodworking company based in Connecticut.
As for new business development, Picknelly, in conjunction with Greyhound, started a second transportation-based operation, called BoltBus. Designed as competition for so-called street-corner operators who offer low fares and few, if any, frills, BoltBus, which features more leg room and WiFi, among other amenities, has been an enormous success, said Picknelly. With runs to and from several large Northeast cities and New York, the carrier is boasting 80% capacity for all its runs, about one-third higher than the average for the industry.
Meanwhile, Picknelly has started a real-estate operation, called OPAL, an acronym that takes the first letters of his children’s names, in reverse order from when they were born.
Among other initiatives, OPAL is the main developer of the intermodal transportation facility taking shape in an old downtown fire station in Holyoke. It will feature a bus terminal, a two-story learning center to be operated in conjunction with Holyoke Community College, and a Head Start facility.
The value of such diversity was clearly on display during the recent economic downturn, said Picknelly. “Belt Technologies has been a victim of the economy,” he said, “but Camfour had its best year ever. Now, Belt is starting to pick up a little, and Camfour is slowing somewhat. My father always used to stress the importance of diversity, and I’ve learned that lesson well.”
But while Picknelly has emulated his father in many regards, from most business philosophies to work within the community, he’s written a much different script in what he considers the most important realm — family life.
“My father always used to say that if he had to do it all over again, he would have spent more time with his children,” said Picknelly, adding that his early years did not include trips to the Bahamas, and probably because of that, he devotes what he considers excessive amounts of time and energy to family.
“It’s very important to me; I love being a dad,” he said, adding that, unlike his father, he doesn’t micromanage every aspect of his businesses, and that leaves him time for other, more important things.
In High Gear
A quick look around Picknelly’s office and adjoining conference room provides ample evidence of the forces that shape his life.
There are photos of the generations that preceded him, models and pictures of buses from several different decades, a globe (presumably to help with planning the next family vacation), and several drawings crafted by his youngest child, Olyvia.
Together, they explain what drives him, professionally and personally, to succeed at whatever he’s doing.
Even picking the restaurant for date night.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]