A Fleet Employee Profile Like No Other: Randy Kochposted
By Mahanth Joishy, Fleet Superintendent
Today we profile the longest tenured member of the Fleet division: Randy Koch. Randy has led a remarkable life, encompassing both his City of Madison career defined by promotions, successful initiatives and change management—and also external extracurricular activities, not least several decades in the fast world of race car driving where this infamous daredevil of the Midwest midget car circuit has cheated death on multiple occasions. Somehow his life has seemed destined to intertwine with the element of fire in one way or the other. Like, behind the wheel of this Chariot of Fire- more on this later.
For those who don’t know Randy, he is our Fleet Operations Manager, and in this role all Forepersons, Fleet Technicians, and Parts Room Technicians report to him. In other words, the essential employee group whose highly skilled hands keep 1,400 Fleet vehicles running and City operations functional. For many decades Randy has been a valuable asset to Fleet, to Madison Fire, and to the City.
Randy is no stranger to getting his hands dirty. By no coincidence, as we want all auto mechanics to be, Randy is in incredible physical condition, known to commute to and from Sun Prairie by bicycle back and forth, a 24 mile round trip, on the hottest of the year. Also related, he does not drink alcohol, a policy that has gotten him plenty of grief from the team.
Randy reported to work for the City for the first time as an entry level Service Worker 2 at the First Street garage on December 2, 1985 and therefore just started his 39th year of service this week and counting. This milestone in years of total service is one that only a precious few City employees will ever reach. Let’s start with some perspective about that day just for context and fun:
- The #1 song in the U.S. was Broken Wings by Mr. Mister (Editorial Note: Classic!)
- Rocky IV was the #1 movie in the U.S. box office (No editorial note needed!)
- Speaking of Rocky IV… world news headlines were dominated by US President Reagan and USSR General Secretary Gorbachev meeting on weapons of mass destruction control during the Cold War. Tense times!
- All of the other Fleet employees from that day have long since retired from City service
- Many current Fleet employees were not born yet. I was in 1st grade playing with toy trucks while Randy was fixing real diesel trucks.
Randy grew up in the Madison area and graduated from LaFollette High School, which had an active and popular automotive vocational education program that Randy matriculated in. Next Randy enrolled in MATC for automotive, and apprenticed part-time for Madison Freight Systems. In June 1982 Randy graduated from MATC and started full-time at Madison Freight Systems. A budding automotive career was off to a promising start but just the next month, Randy nearly lost his life.
Randy’s arm was gruesomely crushed in a compound fracture and his right eye effectively blinded in a high-speed midget race car accident. The race track mishap hospitalized him but fortunately he survived after a long 50 days of staring at the hospital ceiling, bedridden. This time too he survived the ordeal intact, and soon returned to work after fully recovering. His arm was sewn to his hip for over 40 of those days, and 7 surgeries later including grafts from his hip to his arm, Randy walked out of the hospital in one piece and soon went back to work as a mechanic at Madison Freight Systems.
Unsurprisingly Randy did not stop racing after that. During Memorial Day weekend 2006, he was involved in another accident on the race track, this time resulting in a fire that engulfed his midget car and burned Randy badly- we are talking third degree burns. Once again, Randy made a full recovery, walked out of the hospital, and went back to work at Fleet.
After being hired by the City Randy performed inspections and repairs on heavy duty vehicles at First Street and West Badger Road, both first shift and second shift. In 1986 he was promoted to work for Madison Fire Department as a Fire Mechanic at the Fire Maintenance facility. Back then, MFD ran their own fleet operations, but in 1997 Fleet and MFD merged and Randy found himself a Fleet employee once again and promoted to Master Mechanic, the highest shop floor title in the division.
Randy became intimately familiar with the variety of fire trucks, ambulances, and firefighter air bottles and masks that Fleet takes care of during his time as a mechanic on the shop floor. Randy is proud of his time directly and now indirectly supporting Madison Fire Department’s courageous emergency response personnel. “The most gratifying thing about working for Fire, you know that you’re helping every Firefighter while they are doing their job.” Indeed, the work done by Randy and all Fleet staff who touch MFD equipment is without exaggeration a matter of life and death.
Randy eventually entered the supervisory ranks with a promotion to Shop Foreperson in 1999. This job required a more global view of City operations and personnel. “It was fun. What was fun about being Foreperson in the shop office is you get to meet a lot of people from every department,” he says. Indeed, the Fleet shop office was and still is the first point of contact for most customers from any City division, of any Comp Group, especially coming by to pick up and drop off vehicles for service. Not to mention a large group of visitors from the hundreds of private vendors who help keep Fleet running.
2018 was a time of dramatic upheaval as the entire Fleet senior staff retired around the same time. That era presented a great opportunity for a number of mid-career professionals with relevant skills and experience and created the group that runs Fleet today. Randy was promoted to Operations Manager in an extremely competitive process open to City and non-City candidates, after 19 years as Shop Foreperson, and has been in this role since.
Looking back, what are some of the most memorable experiences Randy had at Fleet? Well, fire seems to be a recurring theme in Randy’s life.
On May 3, 1991 a massive fire broke out at the 500,000 square foot Madison Central Storage & Warehouse Co. that will live on in infamy as the “Butter Fire,” because the warehouse was chock-full of butter and cheese at the time… which caused the fire to rage on and on, possibly unlike any other Madison has seen before or since. Randy played a critical, heroic support role around the clock throughout the incident: hauling diesel cans on and off-site to keep the fire trucks fueled, digging out the equipment stuck deep in burning butter, helping wash MFD gear, and servicing the air bottles and masks. No part of this was pleasant for the personnel from MFD and other divisions who responded, especially due to the smell and the greasy mess. “The Fire Maintenance shop stunk like butter for two years after that,” recalls Randy. “It was nasty.” At least Randy got profiled in the Wisconsin State Journal:
I asked Randy, why has he stayed here so long?
“It’s the challenge,” says Randy. “Fire was challenging. Operations Manager is very challenging- there’s got to be a challenge there, or it’s boring.” Randy has helped launch radical changes in his time as Operations Manager, just one example of which is a national model apprenticeship program in 2018 that now simultaneously encompasses high school, technical college, and 4 year university students working side by side with Fleet employees every day, year-round. Change in city government, even the educational initiatives that everyone now loves and one would expect to be a no-brainer, proves unbelievably hard to accomplish. It has definitely not been boring. Randy’s role involves dealing with some of Fleet’s most difficult problems hour by hour, day by day- whether technical issues with vendors, labor relations issues, or trial and error of complicated new processes.
What does Randy believe has changed over the last 39 years?
“We are way more efficient than we’ve ever been here. Way more. New personnel has a lot to do with that,” says Randy. The daily data feeds we closely examine and share with every Fleet employee by email at 3:30pm sharp of every business day supports that boast- or tells us if we are regressing. Numbers don’t lie. Randy deserves immense credit for being an integral part of Fleet’s drive for efficiency, which means lower vehicle out of service, a tighter parts inventory, and also cost savings in both fuel and maintenance to pass on to our customers.
Most impressive of all, Randy remains cheerful every day. He is sincerely liked across the Fleet team, throughout the MFD community, and by just about all whose paths cross his in and out of work. Fleet Chief of Staff Rachel Darken probably works as closely with Randy as anyone on a daily basis. “Randy is one of those people you want to have on your team – knowledgeable, helpful, and genuinely cares about the people around him and the work we do. When challenges arise, you can count on him to come up with creative solutions,” said Rachel.
Randy lives with his wife Laurie, who is a senior executive at Trek global headquarters. His son Kyle is 33 and also big on the race car circuit. His son Chase is 19, and a football star at Michigan Tech University. Randy’s daughter Alexis is 17, and plays softball as a Senior at Edgewood High School. An avid bow hunter, Randy’s most prized takedown was a 10-point buck. Randy and his family have all of the meat from these outdoor adventures made into venison sausages.
Above all Randy is a good human being, and I am honored to work with him. More importantly, we should be pleased that he managed to survive his daredevil ways-- and that glorious 1985 mullet.