by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
During a recent move, Tracy DeLeon came across her eighth-grade yearbook. In it, a classmate had written, "I've never met someone as driven and focused as you."
DeLeon, now 47, knows it's an unusual thing to say about someone in her early teens, but says she's always been a serious person who knows what she wants. It should come as no surprise, then, that DeLeon knew before graduating from high school that she wanted to pursue a career in business. Or that she has spent more than two decades honing her skills in a male-dominated industry and owns her own company, International Decal Management Corp. (IDMC) And perhaps least surprising, at least for those who know her, is the amount of work DeLeon has put into becoming a successful businesswoman.
For DeLeon, that's meant working multiple jobs at once, paying her way through college, gaining knowledge of another culture, advancing her education and wearing multiple hats in every job she has held. Within rail industry circles, she's known as a go-getter who has shown a strong commitment to the rail companies she's served, as well as advancing the role of women in the industry through her longtime involvement with the League of Railway Industry Women (LRIW).
In September, DeLeon was selected as the recipient of LRIW's 2012 "Outstanding Woman of the Year Award." Sponsored by Progressive Railroading, the award recognizes an individual's dedication, commitment and contribution to the rail industry.
"Tracy is never not working. She's a really intelligent young woman, she's able to communicate on a high level with people, she's able to network, and just her presence and presentation of herself is a big part of her success," says Chicago Freight Car Leasing Co. Vice President and Director of Customer Support Connie Sumara, who nominated DeLeon for the award. "Her personality, her knowledge of the industry and her professionalism are just superb."
DeLeon grew up in the small town of Highland, Ill., which is south of St. Louis. In high school, she held jobs at an insurance company and a Dairy Queen, where she was named a nighttime manager at age 16. DeLeon enjoyed both jobs, and they sparked an interest in the business world. After high school, she pursued a business management degree at Western Illinois University. Summers were spent working to help pay her way through college.
"I worked at the insurance company during the day and Dairy Queen at night, and in between, I packed eggs at an egg factory," she says. "Then I babysat on the weekends."
DeLeon had a post-college career path laid out, as well: She wanted to go into sports management, and secured an internship with the St. Louis Cardinals. A baseball fan, DeLeon had grown up watching the team. Her grandfather worked at the stadium and DeLeon attended her fair share of games. But when the Cardinals cut funding for the internship, DeLeon had to move to Plan B.
"I grew up in a very small town, but I knew I was a big-city person," she says. "So I moved to Chicago. I had $23 and my car."
DeLeon quickly found a job working as an administrative assistant for the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. She also began lobbying for the association's political action committee, and there was talk of moving DeLeon to Washington, D.C., so she could lobby full time.
But DeLeon knew she would rather be in business than government affairs. So in 1989, when a headhunter called with a job opportunity to become an administrative assistant at a rail-car leasing firm Northbrook Rail, she jumped at the chance. And so began DeLeon's rail industry career.
During her time at Northbrook, DeLeon obtained her paralegal certification and began writing contracts for rail-car leasing deals. Northbook was a small company that was growing fast, so DeLeon wore many other hats, as well.
"Everyone there kind of did everything — I moved rail cars, did billing. There was no such thing as an AEI tag back then, so a man would teletype information over to me and I would enter it into a computer," she says.
Northbook also afforded DeLeon the opportunity to cross an item off her bucket list: to live in Mexico. While still in her mid-20s, she took a five-month leave of absence from Northbrook to spend about five months in Mexico, where she took classes at Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Merida through a partnership with DePaul University. She also immersed herself in the culture and learned about the country's growing rail industry.
In the mid-1990s, Northbook was purchased by First Union Rail Corp. DeLeon stayed on for a few more years, working in the mechanical department and handling amortization projects, computer projects and data mapping. In the meantime, she got married and started a family.
In 1997, DeLeon accepted a position as assistant vice president of fleet operations for CIT Rail. At the time, the company had a fleet of about 1,000 rail cars.
During DeLeon's six years at CIT Rail, the organization grew "by leaps and bounds." But her work schedule, which included a lot of travel and 20-hour days, kept her away from home and her small child. She gave notice in 2003, but continued working another two months.
"[CIT Rail is] one of my biggest supporters — it's a great company and I learned a lot from them," says DeLeon, who received her master's degree in international marketing from Loyola University while working at CIT Rail. "But it was time for a change — for them, too, I think, because the organization had grown so big. They needed more than start-up people."
After a brief stint in sales with a decal supplier, DeLeon decided it was time for a business startup of her own. It was 2004, and the Federal Railroad Administration was in the process of creating a rule that would mandate the reflectorization of freight cars and locomotives.
As CIT Rail's decal buyer, DeLeon was familiar with the product and interested in the reflectorization process. And she saw a market for a firm that would handle all of a railroad's or leasing company's restenciling needs.
"They had to send a car to a shop to get it done and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you could send people out to do it and have the restenciling done on site so you don't have to take the car out of service?'" she said. "I saw a market for the ability to manage that process."
In July 2004, DeLeon incorporated IDMC with the goal of becoming a one-stop shop for rail-car restenciling, vinyl decals and AEI tags, UMLER management, operations consulting and reporting marks services. DeLeon eased into the business as she learned the ins and outs of running her own company. She also learned firsthand how to cut decals — and looked for another job in case the new company didn't pan out.
"I was scared. I had bills to pay," she says.
DeLeon needn't have worried. Using her many rail industry connections and networking skills, she reined in a steady stream of clients. Within a few months of launching IDMC, DeLeon began turning a profit.
"It wasn't a huge profit, but I was running a business," she says.
Business has grown at IDMC over the years, and DeLeon has marked a few milestones along the way. In 2006, DeLeon, her husband and her son — and, by extension, IDMC — moved to Arkansas to be closer to DeLeon's aging parents.
In 2008, DeLeon opened a second office in Tennessee and hired Lisa Nederhoff, her first and only employee, to run it. And in 2009, IDMC was certified as a woman-owned business. Today, the company manages the restenciling process — including tracking, materials and labor — for 10,000 rail cars.
But running a business doesn't consume all of DeLeon's time. She finds time to spend volunteering and working with children — something she wanted to do since she was a child herself.
"When I was in third grade, I read a book about a child with autism and I thought at that time that I wanted to work with special-needs children," she says. "And then when I decided to go into the business world, in the back of my mind I thought, 'I can still work with kids and have a job.'"
In her 20s, DeLeon was a "big sister" to a boy from an orphanage. Later, she served as a substitute teacher for children with special needs in the Chicago area; in Illinois, you can become a substitute if you have a master's degree, DeLeon says. Right after she launched IDMC, DeLeon helped supervise a breakfast program at a local school between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. before heading home to start her day at IDMC. And now in Arkansas, DeLeon volunteers at a shelter for abused children.
DeLeon also is keeping busy with her own son, Nick, now a high-school senior who plays varsity football, basketball and soccer. Much of DeLeon's spare time these days is spent attending athletic events and touring colleges.
For the small-town girl who never imagined working in the rail industry — let alone for two-plus decades, including owning a supply company — the pursuit of a business career has taken her down an unexpected path. But DeLeon wouldn't have it any other way.
"Railroading is a unique industry where you're not doing the same thing every day. You have different challenges, you meet different people," she says. "I've been in the industry now for 23 years and I have never been bored. To work in a job that long and still enjoy it and look forward to going to work — that's a pretty good thing."