Who were the 10 best railroad CEO’s? (Part 2)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 19, 2009

In the first installment, I told you about the question posed to the Lexington Group in Transportation History by Jim McClellan and David DeBoer. They described the challenges facing railroad leaders in the past half century, grouping those challenges under four headings: new markets and distribution systems; technology and productivity; finance; and industry structure and public policy. The best CEOs made breakthrough contributions to the industry in at least one of those areas. So who would they be?
 
Jim and David listed their own choices for Best of Breed. It turns out they agree on six of the 10 names:
 
Bill Brosnan (top photo), Southern Railway.
McClellan: “Two reasons. He took on the Big John covered hopper case to reduce grain rates. The case went on for years, and Southern was not a rich railroad. He won, of course. And he pioneered mechanized track maintenance.”
 
David Goode (middle photo), Norfolk Southern.
DeBoer: “Goode had the cojones to take on CSX and came away with half of Conrail.”
 
John Kenefick, Union Pacific.
McClellan: “The holding company wasn’t much interested in railroading. Kenefick went to New York and said they had to bid on Missouri Pacific or be forever marginalized in the West. He got his board to go along with him.”
 
Jervis Langdon, Baltimore & Ohio and Penn Central.
McClellan: “One of the innovators. At B&O, he was one of the first to offer rates on unit coal trains. As a Penn Central trustee, he authored the report urging it be pared down to its core routes. This set off the reorganization of that region’s bankrupt railroads by the U.S. Railway Administration.”
 
Louis Menk, Burlington Northern.
McClellan: “Had the BN merger of 1970 failed, there would have been no more that followed. He made it work. Later, he got BN into the Powder River Basin, fighting his own directors to get it done.”
 
Al Perlman, New York Central.
DeBoer: “He was there early in the game on intermodal, and a developer of multilevel automobile cars.”
 
David DeBoer’s other choices were:
 
Stanley Crane, Conrail.
“The actions he took at Conrail were decisive in bringing it to profitability. And he was very influential in Washington with deregulation.”
 
Robert Krebs, Santa Fe and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
“His capital money went into the right places. And from the time he was a trainmaster for Southern Pacific, he was a huge supporter of intermodal, when it was not very popular.”
 
Donald Russell, Southern Pacific.
“Getting rid of the passenger business took a lot of grit. He was also an early intermodal guy.”
 
Hays Watkins, CSX.
“The East is what it is today because of him. He put Al Perlman in a box and shipped him away to the Penn Central. Perlman wanted to control Baltimore & Ohio, and Watkins outmaneuvered him, slamming the door on that idea.”
 
Jim McClellan’s other choices:
 
Paul Tellier (bottom photo), Canadian National.
"He changed the culture of that company completely. Before Tellier and privitization, CN was the biggest bureaucracy in the world. At meetings to which other railroads sent one person, CN would send 17."

Robert Downing, Burlington Northern.
“You have to give Bob part of the credit, as BN’s vice chairman, for putting those railroads together successfully and then getting BN into the PRB coalfields.” Technically, Downing doesn’t qualify because he was No. 2 at BN. But McClellan made the rules, and I guess he can make the exceptions to those rules.

Jim Hagen, U.S. Railway Administration.
“As Conrail’s CEO, Jim was more of a caretaker. His great contribution was running USRA, which put Conrail together. He also moved the peg on deregulation.”
 
Ed Jordan, Conrail.
“As Conrail’s first president, he told Congress the railroad would forever be on government life support unless the industry were largely deregulated. Deregulation owes a lot to him.”
 
Okay people, have at it. Did DeBoer and McClellan get it right? What would your own list look like? I’d like to see it. Remember, your nominees had to be in charge of a railroad in 1960 or later, and not still be in the top job today.
 
In a future blog, I’ll tell you the one name that everyone forgot. — Fred W. Frailey

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