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by Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
Cathryn Frankenberg never has been the kind of person who makes long-term career plans. While growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in the 1960s, she never imagined that she would make a career out of negotiating labor contracts for one of the largest freight railroads in North America.
Even as she graduated from Connecticut College in New London, Conn., in the early 1970s, she still wasn't sure what she would do for a living.
"I never did consciously aspire to a career in the railroad industry," she says. "I got the traditional college generalist's degree — a bachelor's in America studies — but I didn't know what I wanted to do."
Frankenberg was certain about one thing: She wanted to venture out from the New York City area. When the friend of a friend suggested she consider moving to the Twin Cities for abundant job opportunities, she took his advice.
"He [the friend] was touting how wonderful Minneapolis-St. Paul was, and the big cities out East overwhelmed me," she says. "I had an opportunity to interview for a [transportation analyst] job on the Soo Line, in Minneapolis, and I was offered the job."
That was in 1973. Frankenberg has been with Soo Line, now a Class I wholly owned by Canadian Pacific, ever since. Today, she is assistant vice president of labor relations and human resources for CP's U.S. operations. In 2010, the League of Railway Industry Women (LRIW) named her "Outstanding Woman of the Year." Sponsored by Progressive Railroading, the award recognizes an individual's dedication, commitment and contribution to the rail industry.
The story of how Frankenberg got into the rail business is a good example of her overall approach to life: Don't shy away from an opportunity, even if it means stepping outside your comfort zone.
It's an approach that has served Frankenberg well. When she heard about the transportation analyst job opening at Soo Line in Minneapolis, she applied for the position and got it, even though she had no contacts in Minneapolis or in the railroad industry. A year later, she was appointed assistant trainmaster, a job rarely held by women in the 1970s.
"That job gave me an opportunity to really understand the railroad operation and how it worked, which bode me well throughout my career," she says. "Then, I had an opportunity to lead intermodal operations — and again, it was a little bit different than what I had been doing, but I learned a lot."
Frankenberg says she was fortunate in those early days to have had a supportive boss who mentored her.
"Being in an organization that is predominantly male — even though there are many more females at the company now than there used to be — has its challenges," she says. "In the 70s, I was viewed as this oddity. But as I recall, that didn't seem to get in the way of people being willing to help me succeed."
Adapting to a culture where she was in the minority helped shape the work ethic and principles that have guided her: Be professional, know the business and interact with people in a respectful manner.
Those principles came into play during the reorganization of the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corp. (DM&E) while it was being integrated into CP's family of U.S. railroads in late 2007.
As she managed the clerical and managerial workers' transition from the DM&E office in Sioux Falls, S.D., to Minneapolis, Frankenberg took to heart how difficult the change might be for those employees, said Vern Graham, who recently retired as CP's VP of U.S. operations and president of DM&E.
To minimize their anxiety, she kept employees informed every step of the way. She also brought together the union that represented clerical workers in Minneapolis with the non-represented employees from Sioux Falls to talk about how they could work together during the transition.
"Through group meetings and personal responses to e-mails and calls from many of the affected employees, Cathy personally kept everyone in the know and participating in developing mutually acceptable terms and processes for the transition," wrote Graham in his nomination of Frankenberg for the LRIW's "Outstanding Woman" award.
"The end result is that the Soo Line, DM&E, [Transportation Communications International Union] and all 40 unrepresented clerical employees reached a mutually acceptable agreement in record time — and without the need for arbitration or forced compromises," he said.
Graham also praised Frankenberg's work as the DM&E class and craft employees pursued their union representation decision, as well as her experience negotiating more than 100 contracts with the 14 labor unions that represent the Soo Line and Delaware & Hudson railroad workforces.
"In most instances, she also has reached agreements with the unions on a one-to-one basis sooner than the national industry bargaining processes used by other Class I carriers," Graham said.
Also key to Frankenberg's success in dealing with unions: She does her homework. Frankenberg arrives at every bargaining table well prepared, and as a result, she is "very well respected" by her counterparts on the other side, says Kenneth Gradia, chair of the National Railway Labor Conference, which represents Class Is in labor relations and national bargaining with unions.
"An awful lot of bargaining is persistence, consistency and persuasiveness," Gradia says. "She's very forthright and firm with what she wants and why she wants it, and she's willing to stay the course to get to where she needs to get. That requires a big commitment of time and energy. She's able to do that, and the results show it."
Frankenberg has a detailed game plan going into contract negotiations — but not so with her career. Instead, she's chosen to remain open to whatever opportunities come her way. With each new promotion or added responsibility, she felt energized and motivated to learn. As a result, she had no desire to seek employment elsewhere.
"I never got bored," she says. "I had an opportunity to really grow here, and I think that [potential for career advancement] is something many people may not understand about the railroad business."
The biggest challenge of her career, Frankenberg says, came after the 47-day strike against Soo Line in 1994. About 1,100 members of the United Transportation Union (UTU) walked off the job after contract negotiations broke down; 3,500 union-represented Soo Line employees soon joined the picket line. The emotional strike ended only after President Bill Clinton appointed an emergency board to recommend resolutions.
At the time, Frankenberg was VP of labor relations. Once the strike was over, it was her job to implement the new contract so that employees could get back to work without feeling they were treated unfairly. She says she followed through on her principles: Be professional, know the business and treat people with respect.
"Her drive, innovative results and thoughtful, proactive communication with all stakeholders has delivered a proven record of industry success that is worthy of recognition and a model for others in railroading," said Graham.
In typical fashion, Frankenberg remains open to what her future may hold. Now age 60, she's considering retirement.
"My plan is to retire sometime this year and move to Florida," she says, and then pauses. "But, that may or may not happen."
When she ponders CP's future workforce, she hopes more technical school and college graduates, especially women, will take a closer look at the railroad industry.
"There are a lot of opportunities that [on the surface] you might not see, especially from a technological standpoint," she says. "Don't assume there isn't a career for you with the railroads."