This is an installment of Ocra’s “Parking Origin Stories” series that shares the personal stories of passionate parking professionals about how they entered the industry.
A shorter version of this story was first published by Parking Today Media in their April 2023 edition – to read it, click here.
Today’s Story: Susan Cole, CEO & Co-founder @ Cole Ticket Solutions
Parking Origin Stories is a recurring series on the personal stories of passionate parking professionals.
By sharing their ups and downs, starts and stops, and mile markers and roadblocks, we hope you’ll get to know your fellow industry leaders a little bit better and foster stronger connections.
A rising tide, as many say, raises all ships – and it’s through understanding, empathy, and transparency that the most rewarding partnerships are born.
Today’s story is about someone with deep roots in the industry who has continually embraced transformation – a characteristic that, in the wake of COVID-19, enabled her to build and accelerate a business that ushers in the critical parking paradigm shift to “consumables-as-a-service”.
While she described it to me as a “survival story”, I’d argue that her story is, in fact, a hero’s journey of resilience and reinvention.
It shows what happens when you harness decades of parking expertise to pivot and push yourself to grow.
It’s what results from learning to leverage the power of your own unique perspective, and to celebrate and recognize the diversity of journeys we each take to cross the finish line.
Read on to learn more about Susan Cole, CEO & Founder of Cole Ticket Solutions.
“Tickets? Tickets for what?”
Susan’s parking story starts on another continent, in another time zone, in another language, and in another industry altogether.
She was living in Spain working for a Spanish software company, and, after six years away from her native California, was angling to come back to the States.
One of the headhunters with whom she was working sent over a job description for a role based in Azusa (Susan’s hometown), but Susan remembers with a laugh, “they spelled the name of the city wrong”.
There she was, seven thousand miles away sitting at a desk in Grenada, receiving an extract based in Azusa (or, in their words, “Ascuza”). It felt serendipitous.
The role was everything she wanted for her next project. Sales, travel, cracking open new markets… the whole shebang. The next question was, of course, “so, what do these people sell?”.
The response: tickets.
Tickets? Tickets for what? Her first thought was citations, which, while a totally natural not-yet-a-parking-person assumption, was incorrect. The opportunity was actually to work with Digital Printing Systems and conversion manufacturing.
The people were great, the role was ideal – the interview test was tricky (“They made me do ALGEBRA!” – Susan). Fully on board, she launched into parking. That was two decades ago, and she has been steadfast in the industry ever since.
“Any country, any market, any vertical. No limits.”
The company that she joined, in Susan’s words, can’t accurately be described as a “printer”. Rather, it’s a “converter manufacturer”: a business that takes raw materials and transforms them to new, distinct consumables.
The complexity of the product and the industry quickly revealed itself as she worked to open new markets and grow with existing clientele. The business was second-generation, family-run, and had been around for 40-ish years, so there was a solid footprint already.
The next step was growing the International division – particularly in huge markets in Mexico and South America, where access control is extremely prevalent in parking facilities. (Fun fact: Chile has one of the highest concentration of access control products per capita of anywhere in South America!)
Her clients were operators, universities, airports, municipalities, and even PARCS equipment manufacturers. She teamed up with attendants, property managers, asset owners, and everyone in between, sharpening her birds-eye view from a supplier perspective and getting a feeling for the business “from the lot up to the corporate offices”.
According to Susan, her job wasn’t just about one product for one market for one thing. She could pick and choose from any of these different avenues to go down.
“We were open for business for absolutely everyone,” she says, “and that freedom and potential was really exciting. I could think up something and just run with it.”
Starting with less than 5% of the total addressable market, Susan and her team grew the business big enough in these markets that they were able to build a small manufacturing plant in Mexico and supply to enterprise clients like Walmart.
They were penetrating high-value new markets consistently, quickly, and at scale.
“I felt like it was a really dynamic time.”
With software, aggregators, and other technologies emerging, revenue products could do more than simply count how many people come in and out of a garage.
During this period, 15-years-ish back, revenue control was maturing from clusters of single-function equipment into a complete, cloud-based solution.
In Susan’s words, “it was the wild, wild west”. There was so much business out there, as well as a ravenous appetite for adopting and understanding access control and its impact on parking revenue. Competitive intelligence was a priority, and strategic partnerships were forming.
Intuiting the industry’s urgency to integrate multiple systems, Susan decided that she wanted to play a role. She liked the technical aspect of what revenue control was becoming, “all of the moving pieces involved in allowing somebody to get in someplace and then charging them at some point, or not”.
It was energizing. And it all made sense.
In Susan’s mind, “everything goes back to the machine.” The bulk of revenue and access control – even with the fanciest, most advanced software in place – is tethered to some sort of mechanical feature: the push/pull, the scan, whatever physical mechanism starts the whole process.
Her background in converting manufacturing, plus her passion for technology, made her perfectly suited to lean into this paradigm shift.
“I schlepped through garages in heels with a baby in my belly.”
One thing that Susan truly loves about parking is the density of entrepreneurs, and the adventurous, “go-build-it” spirit of the industry.
“Lots of people,” in Susan’s experience, “are like, ‘hey, this doesn’t work, so let’s try this’.” This do-it-yourself environment resonates with her. She feels empowered by it.
When asked to speak to her experience as a woman in the parking industry, Susan is thoughtful and matter of fact:
“So often for me,” she says, “it was this somewhat isolating experience of being the only woman in the room, the only woman in the garage. Someone going through a different set of life circumstances.”
“It puts things into perspective: what women carry on their shoulders in our personal lives means that the path we take to cross the finish line looks different from the one that many men take.”
“I’ve been very lucky that I have had some wonderful, empathetic people supporting me through the past 20 years, which were very formative for me on a personal level as well as a professional one. Marriage, kids, house, all that while cutting my teeth professionally. It all happened while I was in parking.”
Susan feels that the industry, overall, has evolved significantly over the past few decades, and that it’s exciting to grow her footprint as a woman in the industry.
Ultimately, for so many of us, our career journeys are a huge factor in shaping us into more actualized people. This was the case for Susan, and she’s tremendously grateful for parking’s role in that.
“I wasn’t going to wait for someone else to give me an opportunity.”
Six months prior to the onset of the pandemic, the company that started Susan’s trajectory in Parking sold the business to a competitor. Shortly after Susan accepted a position with a smaller converter.
But sadly – like many highly qualified, skilled parking professionals during this period – she was laid off after a year due to COVID-19.
In that moment, Susan decided that she wasn’t ever going to wait for another opportunity to be offered to her. She was going to forge her own path.
So, after a bit of soul-searching and spelunking, Susan “kicked [her]self in the pants and pulled [her]self-up by her bootstraps”. She channeled that entrepreneurial, get-it-done, DIY energy that she loved so much about parking and marched on.
She knew the people, and she knew the products. She’d be doing exactly this for long enough to know what the client needs. So, Susan wrote the plan, found a mentor with the SBA SCORE program and Cole Ticket Solutions was born.
Susan launched her new company smack dab in the middle of the pandemic, in February 2021, with the mindset of “if I can do it now, I can do it”.
After 20 years in the industry, Susan was equipped to take on the challenge of putting a new twist on a really old part of the industry to the end goal of higher productivity and profitability.
She decided that her focus was going to be “solutions, but not just one product” – not just a paper ticket, but a ticket fortified with credentials for complete revenue and access control purposes.
She also developed a new automated self-service ticket supply system for her partners that turns orders into products faster.
Everything is on site, touchless, and automated. Susan calls it “consumables-as-a-service”.
The benefits of streamlined ordering, cost savings in overhead related to procurement and storage, elimination of months in lead time for order fulfillment is revolutionary in the revenue control/ticket industry.
Susan believes this is the future of revenue control and the proof is in the pudding:
The first CTS site has been supplying SFMTA Portfolio (San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency) with revenue control products for all of the 24 municipal garages for the past year, on-site using municipal assets to do so.
“There’s lots of talk in the market about the need for individual garages to have their own ecosystem,” Susan says, “everything from solar panels to self-service equipment, lighting wayfinding, curb space utilization… the works.
“It’s all about the ecosystem and the experience within your garage. Imagine that everything you need for your garage is already living there, all of the time.”
Like, as a quick example, fluorescent replacement tubes for lighting, or soap and toilet paper for the bathrooms – these are parts of your ecosystem that you should have it on site.”
She continues: “This is where I think the market is moving: managing your own consumable.”
“It makes a lot of business sense because it minimizes negative impacts from post COVID supply chain issues, reduction in overhead and ultimately saves operations, asset managers and shareholders a lot of money.”
Today, her biggest wins are airports, including LAX, Sky Harbor, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Van Nuys, Long Beach, and more. Municipalities, too: Susan recently signed with the City of Madison and a three year contract to supply revenue control products for the Port of Houston.
“I’ve been preparing for this marathon for years and years.”
Susan is, in a word, excited. Cole Ticket Solutions only turned two in February 2023, and she’s won some big deals already.
Looking at everything that she’s accomplished with the business, and all of the experiences that led up to it, she likens it to preparing for a marathon.
“I’ve been training for this for years and years,” she says, “building big stuff from the ground up. First with other peoples’ businesses, and now with my own.”
COVID-19 changed many things. It goes without saying, perhaps, that many of these changes were difficult, wrenching, and frightening.
But today, Susan feels, there are new ways to do things that people wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. New problems exist; ergo, new solutions are born.
Like a true entrepreneur, she views any challenge that she has to contend with as an opportunity to come in with new ideas and do things differently.
“I understand the business, have grown up in the business, and people in the business trust me,” Susan says. “If I say that I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.”
Sometimes people say “whoa, you’re crazy, what kind of idea is that?” and then it’s on me to show them that there’s something to it, after all. I love it. I love it for parking, for me, and for everybody out there with a ‘crazy’ idea of their own.”
Susan has held numerous industry leadership roles over her two decades in the industry. She sat on the board of the California Parking Association, was one of the founding members of the National Valet Association, and attended the very first Women in Parking conference. She has served on the international division of the International Parking & Mobility Institute, working to found associations in other countries. Susan received the Chairman’s Award in 2014 and, today, holds seventeen different diversity certifications.
To learn more about Susan and her parking journey, connect with her on LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a parking story to share? Contact Sarah Becherer, VP Marketing @ Ocra, at email@example.com!