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DTA general manager Dennis Jensen retiring after 38 years

DTA General Manager Dennis Jensen is retiring after 38 years with the authority. Steve Kuchera /

Susan Jensen asked for one thing from her husband for her 65th birthday on Nov. 3 — his retirement.

"So I agreed," said the 73-year-old Dennis Jensen. "She told me the next five years are going to be the best years of our life. It was time to go."

Jensen is leaving the Duluth Transit Authority next week after 38 years as its general manager. His legacy is secure — from having overseen the opening of the $30 million Duluth Transportation Center on downtown Michigan Street in 2016 to helping design and order the company's first wave of electric buses set to arrive in February. But the biggest piece of his legacy figures to be the culture he'll leave behind.

The DTA is filled with career employees. Most of the men and women in management, sources for this story said, started out as bus drivers. In addition to Jensen's departure, there are three other retirements this month of 30-plus-year employees. Even the succession plan for the DTA's life after Jensen includes another 30-year employee.

"Most of the people that come here never leave," said maintenance director Jim Caywood, standing alongside Jensen inside the DTA bus garage in Lincoln Park earlier this week. "We always say it's something in the air, but it's been this guy right here that's been a huge part of it. He cares for people. He cares about the company he works for. He's involved in every aspect here."

Caywood was hired 38 years ago by Jensen and rose through the maintenance ranks. Another Jensen hire from 30 years ago, director of operations Rod Fournier, figures to ascend to the general manager role sometime in 2018. Jensen described a national search that yielded two internal candidates and four outsiders. Fournier will take over, Jensen said, following a two- or three-month period with an interim general manager on loan from First Transit out of Austin, Texas.

"It's just such a joy to work for Dennis," Fournier said. "Everybody thinks leaders are all-seeing and all-knowing. That's just not Dennis. He's one of us. He sets a great example and everybody follows. It's hard to see him go. He's a part of us."

Oddly, for having been so impactful with the DTA, Jensen doesn't actually work for it. The DTA's management contract is with the aforementioned First Transit, which is itself part of a multinational transportation and logistics conglomerate called FirstGroup based in Great Britain. Jensen has spent the past 44 years with First Transit and until next week is its most senior employee.

After getting an art degree from Drake University then joining the U.S. Navy, where he worked out of the Pentagon in its marketing arm, Jensen took his first job in busing with the over-the-road carrier Trailways. While marketing the company's service throughout the East Coast, Jensen grew frustrated selling a product he said the company wasn't producing.

"The buses would be dirty; the bathrooms would be smelly and a myriad other things," he said.

A supervisor told Jensen he needed to get into operations, and "I took him at his word," Jensen said.

First Transit hired Jensen and sent him to iron out dysfunction at a Maryland airport that had seen its bus and taxi service fall into disarray. The operation went from sieve to profitable under Jensen. Not long after that, he was transferred to the company's new transit property in Laredo, Texas, where he took over a derelict bus company that had been previously owned by the mayor's family.

"What I learned in Laredo," Jensen said, "was how important the maintenance of the vehicles is."

The pristine DTA garage is a reflection of his attention to maintenance, but a photo album from his time in Laredo illustrates the roots of his meticulous manner. It shows sun-faded buses with bumpers dragging and bald tires. In Texas, Jensen did whatever it took to get better, even implementing a program in which certain residents along the routes would leave out their garden hoses so bus drivers could pull over and hose down overheating engines.

"Laredo was really hot," he said.

When Jensen later rolled into Duluth to see a frozen-over Lake Superior, he wondered what he'd gotten himself into. But everything worked out perfectly, he said. He came to Duluth on the heels of a prolonged labor strike at the end of the 1970s. In the years that followed, labor strife would infiltrate the DTA again, but never for long.

"Our strikes have only totaled seven days in 38 years," he said. "It's a good relationship. It's respectful."

Jensen is leaving the DTA as he would anything else: a tight ship. The labor contract has four years remaining. The management contract between the DTA and First Transit has a fresh five years on it. A renewed arrangement with the University of Minnesota Duluth and the DTA also has five years left.

Retirement talk has swirled around Jensen for a few years now, but he's always been drawn to the pull of the next project. The $6.3 million federal grant that is bringing six electric buses to Duluth has found Jensen wrangling with the manufacturer, Proterra of Greenville, S.C., for two years.

"They're marketing a winter package based on the design we've come up with for our buses," he said.

New routes installed by the DTA earlier this year after it received $4 million in state grants aimed at service expansion have been an overwhelming successes, including a circulator to the UMD campus that instantly became one of the DTA's most popular routes — getting more than 20,000 riders in a recent two-month period since the start of the school year.

"All the new routes are doing really well," Jensen said.

Alas, it won't be his decision on whether or not they'll be self-sufficient enough to last beyond the two-year terms of the grant. That will be the decision for a new general manager.

"There are so many projects," Jensen said, "it's going to be hard to let go."