Arti O'Brien

From high tech to traffic control

ARTI O’BRIEN - Advanced Government Services

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Arti O’Brien is the owner and president of Advanced Government Services, Inc. (AGS), based in Tacoma. Founded in 2003, AGS provides traffic control and road safety services. Prior to acquiring AGS in early 2017, she had a 30-plus year career in the tech industry – holding positions with Motorola and HTC. Arti felt the pull of entrepreneurship and decided to jump across industries to bring her decades of business development experience to AGS.

We recently caught up with Arti to see how she’s been doing, hear about her unique career path and the value of ABC of Western Washington (ABCWW).

How did you decide to make such a unique career change – from high tech to traffic control construction? 

I always had a dream of being an entrepreneur and owning my own business. I felt that entrepreneurial pull especially in the years before I bought AGS. I wanted to help people, mentor them and coach them, because I personally didn’t have mentors early in my career. I wanted a way to give people a second chance in their careers. I had been very blessed in my career and thought it was time I give back in this way – this let me fulfill my dream on multiple levels. I went looking for a business that was already established but had a lot of opportunity to grow. I wasn’t looking at any specific industry, but my husband and I end up in the construction industry with a traffic control company.

How has AGS evolved since you’ve come on board?

The original founder had done a fantastic job growing the company, taking it from nothing to something. They hit a point where they began to struggle with growth and I thought I could bring my experience to the table and take it to the next level. When I bought the company everything was analog, despite doing significant business. The first thing I did was create a whole digital footprint for everything we do. We invested a lot in buying new trucks and refreshing our infrastructure. What made this possible was having the right people in place, people of the right caliber, education and experience. None of us came to this company with a construction background, but they all had the necessary entrepreneurial startup mentality.

Another change is that we recently went from non-union to union shop. AGS was always a non-union shop until December 2019. This was a strategic business decision because, we were missing out on too many business opportunities by not unionizing. When I first took over, the union came after me hard when they saw the growth and movement happening with AGS. It was a battle I had to fight and I kept them at bay. We received a lot of support from ABCWW with this issue and they helped us navigate it. The union back then was coming after me and after my employees, trying to convert them – that didn’t work, they weren’t able to get enough people to join voluntarily. But last year, we decided we need to do this on our own terms and started negotiating internally. It was a strategic decision based on increasing the opportunities for business. When I brought the decision to my employees, I explained why we were doing it: this would open doors for us and give us more opportunities for projects. They embraced it.

ABCWW is often associated with non-union shops, but you are both a member and, now, a union shop. How does ABCWW fit into your new model?

When I first bought AGS, the previous owner told me I needed to be a part of ABCWW and spoke very highly of it. Very quickly I came to realize the value of ABCWW, whether it was helping with L&I claims, the great benefits of the Retro program or just generally looking out for my best interest.

I’ve never thought of ABCWW as union or non-union – for me, ABCWW is an organization that is for the construction industry as a whole. They’re the voice of the small to medium construction businesses. They’re always fighting on our behalf and protecting us.

What has been the impact of ABCWW membership for you?

Like I mentioned, there’s the monetary part that nobody can take away. The benefits of the Retro program are huge – the investment is very low, but the payback is huge. They’ve been so helpful with L&I claims and helping us handle that area of the business, helping us minimize time loss, fines, and more.

What I love about ABCWW is that they’re not large but they’re also not small, so they really know their members. I see how passionate they are about what they do. I don’t know how you attach a value to an organization like ABCWW. They bring to the table the knowledge, the experience and the resources you need to succeed as a business. You can’t put a number on that.

Moreover, their work in state and federal government is so important. They keep us informed constantly on what is happening with new laws and what they’re trying to get passed. Their voice on that level is very powerful and without them, I don’t know who would be advocating on our behalf.

You recently completed work on the Aurora Bridge. How does it feel finish a major project like that?

The State Route 99 Bridge, or the Aurora Bridge, is a pretty well-known bridge. We worked on it for almost two years and just finished it. It was an absolutely phenomenal experience – from working with the prime contractor on the project to the overall experience. But it’s also a little bittersweet. We know all projects come to an end and we need to move on to the next, but you get really tied to the people you work with – from the owners, to the supervisor or the project manager. It’s also a really proud moment for the entire team because everyone touched the project at one point or another. We were all part of the journey to make it successful.

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