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Parking Origin Stories: Rafael Abanilla, SVP of Operations & Innovation @ Parking Concepts, Inc.

This is an installment of Ocra’s “Parking Origin Stories” series that shares the personal stories of passionate parking professionals about their experiences starting out in, and continuing to grow with, the parking industry.

A version of this story first appeared on page 36-37 of the March 2024 edition of Parking Today magazine.

Today’s Story: Rafael Abanilla, SVP of Operations & Innovation @ Parking Concepts, Inc.

Parking Origin Stories is a series highlighting the personal journeys of passionate parking professionals. 

Today we feature Rafael Abanilla, Senior Vice President of Operations & Innovation at Parking Concepts, Inc.

The Thanksgiving before Rafael Abanilla turned seventeen, his father told him to go get a driver’s license. Thinking that his birthday present would be his very own car, he was elated. 

Turns out, he needed a driver’s license because his dad wanted him to get a job.

Raf’s aunt worked at Standard Parking and referred him to a location manager in Glendale, California. He interviewed, scored the gig, and planned to start the day after Christmas.

On December 26, Raf rose before the sun at 4:00 to be on location at 5:00. The cold was biting, the sun hadn’t yet seen fit to make its appearance, and the facilities he crept into were so quiet that he could hear his footsteps echo on the concrete walls.

Raf spent his first day sweeping 3 garages, top to bottom. 

He recalls finishing the arduous task, making his way back to the first facility, and seeing a carpet of shriveled winter leaves covering the ground he’d just cleared. All at once, there was an acrid taste in his mouth: defeat

Naturally, he called his mom.

And what she told him would fill his tank to hit the gas on a career that would accelerate rapidly and assuredly, eventually culminating in multiple senior leadership positions. 

“Do it again,” Raf recalls she said. “What’s the downside? With hard work, you’ll persevere, and without it, you’ll never know what you’re capable of.”

It wouldn’t be too long before he found out.

“All of a sudden, I have to start wearing ties.”

Raf’s career escalated quickly after his stint as a persevering garage-sweeper. 

In 2002, in Glendale, he took on another role as a valet ambassador for a gym, and several other businesses in the area.

Halfway through his third month, he stepped up as assistant for his supervisor, doubling his hourly pay (hey, more money for gas!). 

His supervisor was promoted after another three months and moved on to another market, vacating her role as the manager of three locations.

Now 18 going on 19 years old, Raf’s diligence and budding leadership was rewarded, and he was promoted to his supervisor’s former role. All of a sudden, he was salaried, and went, as he says, “from earning beer money to having to start wearing ties.” 

He recognizes both his own hard work as well as surprising willingness from leadership to take a risk on such a young employee showing strong potential.

“Throughout my career and even to this day,” Raf says, “I’ve been surrounded by folks who are willing to take chances on me. I’ve had managers, reports, colleagues, all sorts of people be generous enough with their time to mentor me.”

This sense of community and camaraderie in parking became very evident to him early on. Going forward, it’d help inform his communication style and leadership tactics immensely as he grew into the leader that he is today.

“Turns out I’m actually a parking guy.”

After 15 years at Standard Parking, which by then rebranded as SP+, Raf decided to take a quick sabbatical and try his hand at something new: residential real estate.

So, he got his real estate license and took on a handful of first-time homebuyers. 

After a few successful transactions, he realized that he wasn’t really feeling the fire in real estate that he felt working in parking and realized that he actually is “a parking guy”, through and through.

He emerged from his sabbatical by accepting a role at Lanier Parking, which would ultimately merge along with Citizen Parking into REEF’s massive mobility network. 

Then came the onset of the pandemic. Raf and his wife decided to seize the opportunity to maximize their life experiences with remote work. 

They bought a camper, tricked it out with a Starlink, and went exploring for 8 months with their two boys.

During this intrepid period, they traversed the United States, hitting lots of national parks and working remotely from all corners of the country.

It was around then, after almost four years of strategic contributions and operational leadership at REEF, that Raf received a call from Parking Concepts, Inc. 

“Basically I said ‘I don’t know if the world is about to end with the pandemic, but I’ll consider the opportunity,” Raf remembers. “I didn’t reach out to my networks too much before moving on, but I knew that I wanted to try working for a regional boutique firm and PCI fit the bill in terms of business model and culture.”

He continues: “PCI takes a different approach, in this regard, than a lot of places I’ve seen. We don’t really have shareholders. There’s one owner. And we believe in our people. If you do the right thing by your people, the profit will eventually come.”

“90% of my day is talking to people.”

Today, after almost three years, Raf is still at Parking Concepts, Inc. as Senior Vice President of Operations and Innovation, where he sees a bright future.

When asked about his role there, Raf says: 

“I’m the new techy guy. I’m bringing in new blood and new systems, but it’s also my responsibility to make sure that the culture and the vision remains. That’s the tough part. You can’t take any shortcuts on that. 90% of my day is talking to people. Because as far as the success of the firm goes, taking care of the people comes first.”

After 22 years in the industry, largely in leadership roles, Raf has observed some distinct shifts in parking. 

Some of these resulted from needs created by the pandemic, like frictionless and hands-free access, while others are being hastened by the inevitability of new tech entering the space.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Raf says. “You can tell by walking up and down the aisles at a parking conference, there’s all of these young tech folks. It feels like we’re getting hipper to the type of tech that has transformed other industries.”

He is energized by the organic shift in industry leadership and succession plans being executed, with today’s legacy leaders shifting to mentoring roles to guide the next generation of wave-making executives as the platforms they create start to mature.

“The human element in parking is irreplaceable.”

Despite being someone who is objectively tech-savvy, Raf sees himself sitting on the cusp of the “old school” and “new school” mentalities in the parking world. He understands and experiences both.

Raf elaborates:

“Listen, a lot of firms have been around for fifty plus years, including PCI. Up until the last 5 years, the evolution and adoption was unhurried. I consider myself technically-minded but I appreciate and understand the legacy operational model and the people-focused culture that it creates for people who work for those operators.”

He believes that new technologies are improving a great deal of processes – for example, on the demand side of things, eliminating the need to literally knock on doors in some markets, or BI tools and analytics making operators smarter and more efficient in managing their day to day. 

But the human element in parking, he feels, is irreplaceable.

Raf sums it up like this:

“All of these dashboards are spitting out numbers, but we’ll always need a real life person to verify what’s actually in front of us. The data is here, but without that human element, the interpretation of the data can easily be incorrect. There will always be a place in parking for the expert who interprets the data and knows what to execute to enhance customer experience and grow the bottom line.”

He continues:

“It’s like how you need a programmer to ask the right questions of ChatGPT to write code, you know? I’m not a programmer, so I don’t know what questions to ask. ChatGPT can write the code, but you need that person there to leverage it.”

In addition to AI, another trend that Raf’s predicting is on the horizon is blockchain for cars as well as transportation and mobility infrastructure. 

It’s an exciting evolution, and one he looks forward to being part of.

“I wake up every day wanting to engage somebody.”

Raf says that sometimes he asks himself this simple question: 

Why am I doing this?”

After all, we’re parking cars – not saving lives.

But the answer to this question is clear to him every time.

“There have been a few folks when I first started out who now are running their own shops or programs,” Raf says, “and seeing their progress with their lives and careers gives me the drive, the passion, the purpose of doing what I do.”

When he rolls out of bed and heads to work – no matter how cold it is or how many metaphorical leaves are on the ground after “sweeping up” all day yesterday – he commits himself to making a positive impact on people’s lives that helps them reach their goals, whatever they may be.

“I wake up every day wanting to engage somebody. Hopefully they will find something about the interaction that motivates them. That’s what drives me.”

“Culture like this is incredibly difficult to find.”

When asked why he isn’t working for a tech vendor or a larger firm, Raf’s answer is that landing at a place with a culture like PCI’s is like finding a needle in a haystack.

“I’ve been so lucky to find a place where I’ve been given autonomy, confidence, and trust,” Raf says. “I am fortunate for the opportunity to have a legacy effect on the firm and help ensure PCI’s continued success.”

With PCI introducing technology, evolving technology, and making strategic technology partnerships, Raf is proud to be part of a pivoting firm eliminating so much pen and paper while putting people first. 

“I don’t believe that there are a lot of groups of folks out there who I could find who would tell me ‘hey, come in, do your thing’ and let me help change the landscape of a company. It’s a great challenge. It gives me purpose.”

Want to learn more about Raf’s parking journey? Connect with him on LinkedIn and send him a message! And if you have a parking story of your own to tell, contact Sarah Becherer, VP of Marketing at Ocra, at sarah@getocra.com.

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