Parking Origin Stories: Raf Abanilla, SVP at PCI


Parking Origin Stories: Raf Abanilla, SVP at PCI

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, Rafael 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 scored the gig and planned to start the day after Christmas.

On December 26, Raf rose at 4 am to be on location at 5 am. 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 the echo of his footsteps.

Raf spent his first day sweeping three 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, he felt 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.

“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 aged 18 going on 19, Raf’s diligence and budding leadership were 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 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.”

This sense of community and camaraderie in parking became evident to him early on. It would help inform his communication style and leadership tactics immensely.


“Turns out I am 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.

He got his real estate license and took on a handful of first-time homebuyers, but he soon realized that he actually is “a parking guy” through and through.

He re-emerged 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 eight months with their two boys. 

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 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 than a lot of places I’ve seen. We believe that if you do the right thing by your people, the profit will eventually come.”


“90% of my day is talking to people.”

When asked about his role as Senior Vice President of Operations & Innovation at PCI, Raf refers to himself as the “new tech guy.” 

He brings in new blood and new systems. But it’s also his responsibility to make sure that the culture and the vision remain.

“That’s the tough part,” Raf says. “You can’t take any shortcuts on that. Because as far as the success of the firm goes, taking care of the people comes first.”

After 22 years in the industry, Raf has observed some distinct shifts in parking, from new technologies to organic transitions in industry leadership as new wave-making executives emerge.

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


“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.

“Listen, a lot of firms have been around for 50 plus years, including PCI,” Raf says. “I consider myself tech-minded, but I understand and appreciate the legacy operational model and the people-focused culture that it creates for people who work there.”

He believes that new technologies are improving a great deal of processes as on the demand side of things, eliminating the need to literally knock on doors in some markets.

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 there will always be a place in parking for the expert who interprets and verifies the data and knows what to execute to enhance the customer experience and 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 bring it to life.”


“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 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, he commits himself to making a positive impact on people’s lives.

“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 found a place where I’ve been given autonomy, confidence, and trust,” Raf says. “And I am so 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.”


Sarah Becherer, VP Marketing at Ocra, can be reached at

Article contributed by:
Sarah Becherer, VP Marketing at Ocra,
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