By Ann Marie Shambaugh
For most people, taking over a state agency in the midst of an audit spurred by about $60 million in overcharges to its customers would be a daunting task, but not for Kent Abernathy.
The new commissioner of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles has served in top U.S. Army leadership positions at the Pentagon and in Iraq, as vice president of two major banks and as chief of staff of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, so he’s not intimidated by the task of cleaning up operations at the BMV.
“Having been involved in complex operations before, it helps when you’re managing something this complex,” said Abernathy, a Zionsville resident. “You’ve got to take a very systematic approach to it. You can’t overreact, and you can’t underreact, but you’ve got to have a very progressive way of making change.”
Gov. Mike Pence appointed Abernathy to his new role in February, several months after accounting firm BKD had begun an audit of the state agency. Abernathy replaced Don Snemis, who is now serving as special counsel for program integrity at Family and Social Services Administration.
“Don Snemis has led the Bureau of Motor Vehicles with great integrity as he worked over the past year to identify and solve problems that have existed within the agency for several years,” Pence said in a statement announcing the new appointments. “I am confident that Kent Abernathy, with an extensive background in leadership positions in both the public and private sectors, will continue to implement these solutions and serve Hoosiers well.”
The BMV acknowledges that it overcharged customers about $60 million between 2006 and 2013 – although it also states that customers were undercharged $140 million during that same time period. Abernathy believes an overly complex fee structure created by years of legislation led to many of the mistakes, and he’s eager to implement changes as a result of the audit, which is expected to wrap up by early summer.
But overall, Abernathy believes that the BMV is in a good spot, and he plans to keep it there. Customers overwhelmingly report positive experiences at the many local branches, the state’s wait times are among the lowest nationwide and the BMV website has been ranked one of the top in the country, he said.
“The good news is we have a 96 percent customer satisfaction rating. That’s important, because our customers are also our bosses,” Abernathy said. “We’re employed by 6.5 million Hoosiers.”
A long road to the BMV
Abernathy grew up in Redkey, Ind., a tiny town about 20 miles northeast of Muncie. He attended West Point and became an officer in the U.S. Army, serving at Fort Knox, Ky., Fort Bragg, N.C., and in Korea.
After entering civilian life, Abernathy began working in the banking industry in New York City, near where his wife, Karen, grew up. His career eventually brought him to Indianapolis, where he served as a vice president with National City Bank and Bank One.
In 2003, Abernathy returned to the military, serving in leadership at the Pentagon, as chief of staff of the Iraq Assistance Group in Baghdad and as the interim director of the U.S. Central Command Washington Liaison Office.
More than six years later, Abernathy once again left the military and returned to Indiana to become IDEM chief of staff for Gov. Mitch Daniel’s administration. He was still serving in this role earlier this year when Pence tagged him as the new BMV commissioner.
“The actual appointment itself surprised me a bit,” said Abernathy, noting that he has known Pence for about 15 years and had expressed to him a “desire for more challenges.”
As the new head of a troubled agency, Abernathy has already been introduced to many challenges, but he can also point to solutions.
“There have been a lot of good things already done,” Abernathy said. “There’s already been some refunding of fees, and we’re continuing to assess that to do what’s right by Hoosiers.”
During Abernathy’s tenures in the Indianapolis area, he and his family called Carmel home for nearly two decades. But about three years ago the family decided to move to Zionsville, a town that had long appealed to them.
“We knew the lifestyle we wanted, and we’ve always loved Zionsville, so it was a very easy choice,” said Abernathy, whose earliest memories of the town include his mother traveling all the way from Jay County to visit. He also said that the small town atmosphere reminds him of growing up in Redkey and his wife of her childhood days north of New York City.
Abernathy quickly became involved in his new hometown, joining the Zionsville Economic Development Commission as a nonvoting member, a role he intends to keep even as BMV commissioner.
“If you’re going to be part of the community, I think it’s important to be involved,” Abernathy said. “[Joining the ZEDC] was a great opportunity to get to know more people in the community and have an impact on the future of Zionsville.”
MEET KENT ABERNATHY
- Favorite pastime: Time with family, golf
- Favorite local restaurant: The Friendly Tavern
- Favorite color: blue
- Age: 58
- Birthplace: Portland, Ind. (Jay County)
- Favorite vacation spot: Outer Banks – North Carolina
- Family: wife, Karen; sons, Justin, Jonathan, Kristopher
- Most DVR’d TV show: rarely DVR
- Favorite quote: “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Abraham Lincoln
- Motto to live by: drawn from a prayer, commonly known as the serenity prayer, I first heard while a cadet and often spoken as part grace before meals at West Point – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
- Early morning riser or night owl? Early riser and morning workout person (from my military days) – currently halfway through P90x3 workout program; although I typically get a second wind in the evening after dinner when I do a lot of reading.