I had been interviewing D.J. Stadtler for about 15 minutes several weeks ago when a thought crossed my mind. So I asked: Would he consider throwing his hat into the ring to become vice president of operations of Amtrak, rather than the acting VP? At the time, D.J. had another full-time job, as Amtrak’s chief financial officer. And until he came to the passenger train company three years ago, he’d not worked a day for a railroad in any capacity.
But this man seems to impress everyone he meets, including me, and so I asked that question. Stadtler replied yes, he’d been thinking of just that. And the answer came a week ago when Joe Boardman, the president of Amtrak, made him the permanent chief of operations.
Boardman’s choice may strike you as odd. D.J. Stadtler cannot recite the Air Brake Law, hasn’t passed a book of rules exam, and has never proofread an employee timetable. He hasn’t paid his dues, you might argue. Neither had Carl Ice, a mechanical engineer by training, when BNSF Railway’s Matt Rose made him chief operations officer (Ice is now BNSF’s president).
From talks with other Amtrak people and my own observations, I gather that Stadtler has lots going for him in his new job. Among them, he parses complex topics easily, possesses good people skills, doesn’t dodge unpleasant tasks or inconvenient truths, and (not least of all) seems to enjoy being around trains and railroaders.
Perhaps the most important decision Stadtler will make this year is to choose a successor to Richard Phelps, who retired at the end of 2011 as vice president of transportation. The job of the VP-operations is to oversee transportation (trains), engineering (track), and mechanical (equipment). Engineering and mechanical are capably handled by Frank Vacca and Mario Bergeron. He needs the third leg of his stool, in other words.
Stadtler’s background is interesting. Straight out of college he went to work for the government, spending nine years at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, working on federal retirement health-benefit programs. Then he spent 11 years at the U.S. Department of Transportation, specializing in budgets and ultimately becoming the Federal Railroad Administration’s deputy chief financial officer. After 20 years, “I said I’m done with the commute.” He quit to help run his family’s manufacturing business in central Virginia and loved not having to pass a single traffic light on his 25-mile way to work.
Boardman, formerly head of FRA, remembered Stadtler when he became president of Amtrak and asked him to resume the commute to Washington, D.C. “For years I had said, if I were at Amtrak, I’d do this differently and that differently,” says Stadtler. So he became Boardman’s chief of staff and then CFO when that job opened up.
His predecessor as VP-operations lasted six months and is remembered as something of a dud. I predict that D.J. Stadtler will make a more lasting impression on the company.
Note to Amtrak employees: If you want a word with D.J., be an early bird. When he takes Virginia Railway Express from Fredericksburg, Va., he’s out the door long before 5 a.m. and at his desk by 6:30. At that hour, he’d probably enjoy some company. — Fred W. Frailey