Retiring manager leaves legacy of people
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — For David Treme, it comes down to people.
While Treme takes pride in the buildings, roads and utilities he helped Salisbury accomplish during his quarter-century as city manager, he’s most proud of something more intangible than bricks and asphalt.
Treme said his top achievements have been encouraging employees to go back to college and delivering excellent customer service to Salisbury residents.
“My greatest joy has been taking a look at folks that have come to work here and trying to see them as they could be, rather than what they are,” Treme said.
With Treme’s guidance, many city employees have completed undergraduate or master’s degrees.
Police Chief Rory Collins, Fire Chief Bob Parnell, Communications Director Karen Wilkinson, Planning Director Joe Morris, City Clerk Myra Heard and a host of others have earned college degrees or will soon. Many more have achieved certifications and completed advanced training.
“They are reaching their full potential,” Treme said.
When he suggests returning to college, most employees are shocked.
“They’ve been out of school for so long, many think they can’t do it,” he said.
Treme knows better.
After his father died when he was 19, his mother lost her job because she didn’t have enough education. She had never been to college. She had never taken algebra.
At age 46, she enrolled at the University of South Carolina and graduated four years later with a 3.5 grade point average. She became a teacher.
“If she can do it, anyone can do it,” Treme said.
In 2004, Treme felt like he was getting a little stale, he said.
As he’d advised others to do, he sent himself back to school — a two-week leadership class at the University of Virginia, where he encountered a principle that would change the culture of service delivery in Salisbury.
Inspired by the book “Good to Great,” Treme returned to Salisbury and introduced the Hedgehog Concept, department by department. The concept encourages employees to define what they can do better than anyone else.
Time and time again, city workers came up with the same answer — customer service.
Salisbury residents filled out a satisfaction survey in 2004 before Treme launched the customer service initiative. Five years later, the city sent out the same survey.
“We had improved in 12 of 13 service areas,” Treme said. “The only thing we’d done differently during that time period was the customer service intervention.”
Employees had changed their attitude toward the public, and it showed.
The city adopted the motto “driven to serve,” and employees who deliver the best customer service win incentives and rewards.
Winners have changed tires. Discovered leaks. Given grocery money to an elderly woman who had no food.
The customer service design team recently renamed its top award after Treme in honor of his retirement.
“I’m not driving this thing,” Treme said. “The key word is empowering your employees. If you provide a good environment and allow your employees to step out, they will do those things.”
Treme’s customer service initiative has been adopted by cities across North Carolina, but he maintains that Salisbury still has the best employees in the state.
Treme’s darkest hour as city manager came on March 7, 2008, when two firefighters died in the Salisbury Millwork fire.
“It still brings tears to my eyes when I least expect it,” he said.
Treme and Parnell, the fire chief, personally told the families of Victor Isler, 40, and Justin Monroe, 19, the men had perished. Parnell would later say Treme provided a source of spiritual strength for him that day and throughout the ordeal.
“It was the saddest day of my career,” Treme said.
For Treme, who thinks of his employees almost as children, the loss of Isler and Monroe had a profound impact, Mayor Susan Kluttz said.
As they reflect on his retirement, city workers have called Treme a father figure. A mentor. An encourager.
Known as the “praying city manager,” Treme last week prayed fervently and publicly for interim City Manager Doug Paris, Treme’s protege who starts his new job Monday. Treme warned Paris the job is “not for the faint of heart.”
“The career I’ve chosen has been very rewarding but very difficult,” Treme later told the Post.
Treme said he looks back on a quarter-century with no regrets. He could not have chosen a better place “on the face of the earth” to serve than Salisbury, he said.
“I feel fulfilled in that I’ve given them the very best that I have,” he said. “But I think it’s time for new leadership.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.