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Rising Stars 2019: Luke Olson
Luke Olson, 38
Vice president of marketing and sales
Loram Maintenance of Way Inc.
Nominator's quote: "Luke has a passion for problem solving and resolving issues facing every market of the rail industry, from Class I and heavy-freight customers to short lines, transit and commuter lines. He is committed to continually exceeding customer expectations and drives his team to do the same by delivering innovative and creative solutions. He possesses a steely resolve and has built a team of leaders to manage for the long term." — Barb Christensen, Loram Maintenance of Way Inc.
Why did you pursue a career in the rail industry?
I graduated with my undergraduate degree in international business and marketing in 2003 and found myself in a very tight labor market after the dot com recession. Loram was hiring to position itself on an aggressive growth plan, focusing on international expansion.
I was enticed by the long term, strategic vision of the company, which I’ve come to learn is a core trait of the railroad industry in general. Railroads are old, established businesses — which makes them seem like they are old fashioned, but they are not. During my career I’ve seen them adapt to new technology, reinvent their markets and adapt to changing conditions. They’ve done this so well that railroads today are making more money and are more relevant than ever. Looking back at the last 16 years working in this industry it is clear to me why it is such a great one to be a part of.
Describe your education after high school.
I attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I studied business administration and graduated with a double major in international business and marketing, with a minor in Spanish. I spent my junior year studying abroad in San Sebastian, Spain. That taught me how to adapt and learn things in an environment that was new and intimidating. Nearly all of my classes were taught in Spanish — which was difficult, but rewarding as I learned to speak business Spanish in the process. I graduated in 2003 and started at Loram in July 2003.
After 5 years of working I returned to school part time to earn my MBA at the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 2012.
How are you making a difference in the rail industry?
Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked with others at Loram to develop the next generation of rail grinding technology to serve the industry well for a long time to come. We have realized serious productivity gains that have given the customers much better value. I am also very proud of the safety culture we’ve established at Loram, which has made our operations much safer. I’m proud of the industry in general and how we have grown in our understanding of safety and how important the positive culture is to achieving a workplace where nobody goes home hurt.
What is an interesting, unusual or little known fact about you?
Two of my passions outside of work and family are cooking and gardening fruits and vegetables.
What was your very first job?
Mowing my next door neighbor Mel’s lawn. But my first real job was working at the Kraemer’s True Value Hardware store in Wayzata, Minnesota. I stocked shelves, helped customers find things, made keys, assembled Weber grills and sharpened chainsaw and lawnmower blades. The guy who hired me at Loram (Phil Homan, now president and chief executive officer) claims that it was my high school job at True Value that got me the job at Loram because he knew I wouldn’t be afraid to get dirty and probably knew how to fix things.
What is your philosophy toward life and/or your career?
1) Take care of my team and make sure they know how much I appreciate them;2) Learn from mistakes;3) Get stuff done; and4) Laugh often.
What is your advice to new railroaders who want to advance their careers?
Get out of your comfort zone. If an opportunity comes up that wasn’t exactly what you had envisioned for yourself and your career, seriously consider doing that thing. Chances are that someone with a broader view of the world than you have thinks you’ll be good at that and wants you to learn something new.
What do you think will be the biggest trend to affect railroading over the next decade?
I think the underlying trend over the next decade will be how railroaders can do more with less. Particularly do more with fewer people. As the next generation of railroaders takes over the industry, we’ll be challenged by doing without the extensive base of knowledge that those who have worked in the industry for the last 40 years are taking with them. Our challenge will be to embrace data and inspection technologies to measure with data what our predecessors could not to make good decisions and realize the necessary productivity gains we need to remain competitive and relevant.
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