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Bruce S. Wong, 2019 CEO of Influence

Bruce S. Wong

Director Ada County Highway District

“Leadership is a privilege, an honor, and an opportunity that must be bounded by the heart of a servant — anything less is not acceptable.”

Integrity binds all

A clear vision and empowered workforce will foster future economic growth

There’s a sign that hangs over the office door of Bruce Wong at the Ada County Highway District offices in Garden City: “As a matter of fact, I do own the road.”

Even with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, the director is still too modest about his role in the remarkable turnaround of one of the state’s most demanding and historically thankless public agencies.

For many years and dating back to its 1971 inception, the ACHD has struggled with both internal and public opinion. Stakeholders wanted to be better represented on infrastructure projects in the midst of surging population growth. Wong took on the role of executive director in 2011 and put an unabashed mantra at center stage: “service over self.”

Wong was instilled with values of service and sacrifice from an early age. He comes from an Air Force family — his father reached the rank of chief master sergeant and his two brothers are rising through the ranks as officers. Wong always knew that he wanted to fly and became a distinguished graduate of the Air Force ROTC program at his undergrad alma mater University of Oregon, where he would also meet his wife, Janice. He then embarked on a 30-year career in the Air Force, including stints at the Pentagon in national intelligence and a commanding role with the 366th fighter wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base for post-9/11 overseas missions. He retired in 2004 at the rank of colonel.

An opportunity to build

With a decorated and affluent life full of accomplishments and retirement beaming on the horizon, how did a guy like Wong find his way to leading an agency like ACHD?

It started with moving with his wife closer to her hometown in the Treasure Valley. The move was made easier by his post to Mountain Home Air Force Base. Once in Idaho, Wong utilized two master’s degrees — in national intelligence and business administration — to land executive roles for Albertsons Companies, Inc., Driveline Retail Merchandising and The Precision Strike Group.

In 2011, a former chairman of the Idaho Transportation Department met with Bruce to suggest he consider the vacant executive director role. Bruce and the ACHD commissioners of the time shared his vision that a shift in perspective was needed in the agency. His natural-born leadership and career of selfless, service-driven acts won over the commission in a decision that would soon reap substantial benefits.

Renewed public trust

The ACHD has grown under Wong’s leadership from 290 full-time employees to more than 360, and it has expanded into new offices. It has also increased its budget by $50 million — a 62% growth — while maintaining operating expenses of just 6%. And perhaps most evident of his influence on the agency, the retention rate has steadied at 94%, with internal promotions rising from 10% to 33%. Wong’s philosophy toward hiring, and staffing in general, is that “employees are profit centers, not cost centers.” His priority as a leader has been to create an environment for professionals to feel emboldened to flex their creativity.

“More than ever before, employees feel valued and supported,” says Christy Little, an ACHD employee of 20 years. “Bruce himself has always followed through on his part and has never micromanaged.”

Brooke Green, a former ACHD employee who now serves in the state house of representatives, credited the director for the culture shift that is attracting and retaining young professionals.

“His words are an accurate reflection of his commitment and vision to investing in his employee’s futures,” Green says.

This rebirth of the ACHD could not have come at a more opportune time for Ada County. The demand for smart and conscious infrastructure has soared as more than 54,000 new residents — the equivalent a small city — have settled in his jurisdiction during his tenure.

As is the case with any public agency, steady and plentiful funding is the lynchpin in ACHD’s ability to meet the demand of residents. The agency’s newfound operational efficiency and creative resurgence is replenishing the public’s faith that every public dollar is maximizing its spending power.

The devil in the details has been better accounting, financial and insurance practices, restructured committee-based decision-making, and even better mechanical care of ACHD maintenance vehicles, which have quietly garnered a sterling national reputation and attracted buyers from across the country at times of auction.

Furthering the trust between ACHD and the public, the director has instituted public workshops as a way to sit face-to-face with residents who might identify projects that would have otherwise gone overlooked. In fact, Wong directly credits residents’ input with several bridges and pedestrian improvements made over the past eight years.

Impacting beyond the ‘state of Ada’

In practice, the influence of Wong’s agency extends far beyond the county lines and to nearly every road in Idaho. Almost all substantial commercial and residential development in the valley coordinates directly with Wong and his staff.

Beyond the massive web of infrastructure projects, Bruce and ACHD still find time to rebuild society in other ways, and they commit the same fiery resourcefulness and selflessness as ever. Year after year, the ACHD golf tournament raises hundreds of thousands for organizations focused on veteran-, children- and family-focused charities, totaling more than $1 million for eight different charities during his tenure.

Additionally, Wong personally oversees the Idaho Patriot Thunder motorcycle ride, a charity cruise that draws as many as 1,200 riders every year on a police-escorted ride from Boise to Mountain Home. Proceeds of title sponsorships from Harley Davidson and many local businesses, along with registration fees, are donated to Operation Warmheart to provide veteran families with funds to pay their bills.

“No easy feat,” says BarbaraAnn Williamson, an administrator of the Idaho Guard and Reserve Family Support Fund, describing Wong’s involvement. “There are dozens of moving parts to pull this off, and every year he remains just as tireless in his efforts to support service members and their families.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the event gives him reason to take his Harley for a ride under the sunshine alongside his wife Janice — even if she’s on a Honda.

If you sit down and review all that he’s accomplished for the community in his first eight years as director, you’ll never hear Wong boast or even hint that his efforts are anything more than just doing his part and following a belief system that’s always come naturally to him.

“I believe that the success of our team members drives the success of the team,” Wong says. “Leadership is a privilege, an honor, and an opportunity that must be bounded by the heart of a servant — anything less is not acceptable.”

About Cameron Stewart