Why Norfolk Southern is moving its headquarters move to Atlanta

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Back in 2013, I penned a two-page feature for Trains called “How cool is your railroad?” We prepared a chart that analyzed various aspects of the corporate makeup, posture, and outward presentation of the seven big U.S. freight carriers. Among the topics we reviewed was headquarters city. For Norfolk Southern, of its world headquarters I wrote this: “Possibly the deadest downtown of any railroad HQ. If Norfolk wasn’t in the company name and Lambert’s Point wasn’t filling ships with export coal, a move to Atlanta would be long overdue.”

I got no Christmas card from the chamber of commerce that year. I did get letters from readers who live there telling me I was nuts and where else to go. Surprisingly, I have been allowed back in since.

On Wednesday, NS announced that it is moving to Atlanta. The company has 500 people in Norfolk and 1,900 at the David Goode building in Atlanta. It’s the latest move to consolidate the troops that saw the company close its corporate offices in Roanoke, Va., and relocate some 500 people back in 2015.

Why move? And why now? I know it wasn’t my sputterings that triggered this. But here’s what I think did move the needle:

  1. Atlanta has been the operational hub for NS since it was created in 1982. Before that It was the old Southern Railway operating headquarters when the company office was in Washington, D.C. Norfolk is one more place to have to travel to or from for meetings.  
  2. Norfolk is a nice enough city (OK, I admit it), but it’s not high on the list of millennials, who will be the next employees of the company over the coming 30 years. Atlanta is.
  3. Coal isn’t the company’s primary cargo any more. Intermodal is.
  4. UPS’s world headquarters are in Atlanta. Did I say that intermodal is king now?
  5. Norfolk is a plane ride to a hub and then another flight before reaching a destination. Delta flies direct to just about everywhere. 
  6. CEO Bob Claytor, who landed NS in Norfolk 36 years ago, was a lover of the sea and sailing. He wanted to be in Norfolk. I don’t know what current NS CEO Jim Squires passions are, but he either doesn’t care for the sea or likes Atlanta’s cultural offerings better. Or maybe he’s getting ahead of global warming and rising sea levels. (Atlanta is 1,050 feet above sea level vs. Norfolk at 7 feet).

 What’s NS losing? In Norfolk it was one of three Fortune 500 companies. In Atlanta it will be just one of 30. It will still get good treatment in Atlanta, but it will be one among the herd.

 Its Norfolk employees are also gaining legendary Atlanta traffic, and I hate to think of the first time it snows there for anyone commuting from outside the I-285 loop.

For my friends in Norfolk who have to choose between packing up and moving to learn how many Atlanta roads have the name “Peach” in them or staying local, my sympathies. I hate moving, too. But I say give Atlanta a try. I grew up 120 miles north of there, and Atlanta was the place to be. Short of another merger, I can’t imagine any reason the company would want to leave there for at least another 36 years.











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