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Rail News Home Norfolk Southern Railway

October 2013

Rail News: Norfolk Southern Railway

Norfolk Southern's Wick Moorman: a gentleman, a scholar, an innovator (profile)


— by Pat Foran, Editor

During his nearly eight-year run as chairman and CEO, Charles Wickliffe (Wick) Moorman has charted what's shaping up to be a unique course for Norfolk Southern Railway. As constructively as any of his Class I counterparts, he's embraced the link between technology, operating efficiency and productivity. He's leading the charge to inculcate a safety culture change at his railroad. And he continues to push the partnership envelope in strategic rail corridors, brightening the railroad's intermodal future and paving the way for new opportunities along the way.

Ultimately, Moorman has prepared NS for what's next, and that includes ensuring the railway is well-positioned for growth and service improvements. And he's done it in his own way, in his own style.

Nothing if not gracious, at times self-deprecatingly so, Moorman is widely regarded as a leader who listens. He's known, too, for his sense of humor (the dry kind). Moorman also loves to learn — an academic, of sorts, you might say, or at least a few colleagues and counterparts would. But the laser-focused Moorman is a railroader who doesn't merely live in the world of ideas. He develops, shares and implements them.

"Wick is very polite, and he comes across as fairly low key, but he's a businessman," says Mike Haverty, non-executive chairman of Kansas City Southern, which since 2006 has been a joint-venture partner with NS on the Meridian Speedway, one of the fastest-growing intermodal lanes in the United States. "I have found over the years, in dealing with senior management at Norfolk Southern, that they all have been what I would refer to as 'southern gentlemen.' And behind the gentleman exterior, they're tough. They're determined. They're dedicated. That's Wick."

Accordingly, Progressive Railroading has named Moorman, currently NS' chairman and CEO, the recipient of our 2013 "Railroad Innovator Award." He'll receive it at our annual RailTrends® conference, which will be held Nov. 21-22 at the W New York Hotel in Manhattan.

Change And Tangible Satisfaction

Moorman was born in New Orleans, but he grew up in the college town of Hattiesburg, Miss., where his parents taught at the University of Southern Mississippi.

When Wick was a young boy, his father, an English professor, landed a couple of research fellowships overseas. The Moormans subsequently lived in a village north of London for two years.

"During that time, my brother and I went to English schools — first to primary, then elementary, or grammar school," Moorman says.

Different environment, different people, different culture, different lessons. For Moorman, it would become a way of life: Wherever he laid his hat, he'd adapt, he'd adjust, he'd listen. And he'd learn — from lectures, books or other sources.

"I don't have many gifts," says Moorman, in that self-effacing style, "but I'm good in academics."

Particularly math and science. So, he enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he majored in civil engineering. In 1970, he signed up with Georgia Tech's cooperative education program, which enables engineering students to complement their formal education with paid work experience.

"When you're 18 years old in what was a stunningly simpler time, you don't really wonder where life is going to go," he says. "When they asked me what I wanted to do, I said 'railroads.' I was fortunate to get a co-op with the Southern Railway."

Why railroads? "I always have been a bit of a rail fan," as he put it during his keynote at the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association's (AREMA) Annual Chairs' Luncheon, held Oct. 1 during Railway Interchange 2013 in Indianapolis.

It didn't take long for Moorman to become a maintenance-of-way (MOW) fan, in particular — his passion for the engineering discipline is acutely apparent when he talks about his time working in the Southern Railway Co.'s MOW department. He says it's the best training he could have had to prepare him for what became his rail journey.

"I still enjoy nothing more than getting out on [track] inspection trips," he told the AREMA luncheon crowd.

And the Southern Railway might have been the best place for him to prepare. An NS predecessor, the Southern Railway was on "the cutting edge of change" in the 1960s and 1970s, given its work with dieselization, shop and yard modernization, and computers — hence the catch phrase, "The Railway System that Gives a Green Light to Innovations," according to NS' website. Part of the greenlighting process required employees to figure out a fair amount on their own, as Moorman learned during his co-op student days. The message was reinforced when he entered the Southern Railway's management training program in 1975.

"It was very different than it is today — you were put out on a track gang and learned how to do everything yourself," Moorman says. "It was a challenging environment. You worked all the time, and it was always changing, which I liked. At a young age, you were given a significant amount of responsibility."

There was another benefit to working on the railroad: "tangible satisfaction," as Moorman puts it.

"You could go out and fix something, and see what you had done," he says.

Coming Back Home

Southern Railway managers certainly noticed Moorman's contributions. During his first dozen years with the railroad, they put him in increasingly responsible positions, from track supervisor to assistant division engineer. Moorman and his family moved five times during those 12 years, including stints in Atlanta, Albany, Ga., and Greensboro, N.C.

"All along, I was learning about the company — learning how operations differed in different parts of the company," he says. "For me, the attraction was the variety. There was always something new during that first 12 years."

Then Moorman took what at the time appeared to be an abrupt career turn: At age 35, he took a buyout the Southern Railway was offering to engineering department employees in 1987 and enrolled in Harvard Business School.

"I had thought about going back to school in the past, and actually had started by going at night while I was division engineer in North Carolina, but it didn't work out very well," Moorman says, sharing his oft-told tale of what triggered his decision to go to school full time. "I was at home one Sunday morning with my wife and there was an article in the paper, which more or less read: 'If you have attained a Harvard Business School degree, the streets were paved with gold.' So I took a buyout. And there was zero guarantee that I would be able to come back to the railroad."

But return, he did. After earning his MBA in 1989, Moorman re-signed with the Southern Railway to serve as director of transportation planning.

"If I were writing my story, I'd just say 'He's been an extraordinarily lucky guy,'" Moorman says.

The Wick Moorman Story has little to do with luck, colleagues say.

"I happened to be there when Wick called the folks in H.R. and said, 'Hey, remember me? I took the early [buyout] and went to Harvard and now I'd like to come back. How can we do this?'" says David Goode, who began his rail career with NS predecessor Norfolk and Western Railway in 1965 and was named NS' CEO in 1992. "It wasn't a hard decision to make to have Wick come back home."

Not given Moorman's "native intelligence" and "just plain love" of the rail industry, Goode says.

"Wick is the whole package," he adds. "He understands and loves the business, and he has a great way with people."

In part, it's the "gentleman" thing, and the sense of humor, that win folks over. But his willingness to listen and ability to focus also resonate. Moorman knows what he knows — and, maybe more important, he knows what he doesn't know.

"In those days, when you were a track supervisor or division engineer, there was a general understanding that you would know everything that happened that day. There really was an expectation for micromanagement," he says. "But when I came back [as director of transportation planning], my knowledge of those issues was very thin. So you had to figure out who your good people were and trust them to do the job."

It was a different approach — and a cultural change — that presented different challenges. But on the modern railroad, empowering people and building consensus where appropriate made (and would continue to make) sense as Moorman rose through the railway's ranks.

In 1991, the newly merged Norfolk & Western/Southern Railway named him assistant VP of stations, terminals and transportation planning. From 1992 through 2004, his rise was as quick as it was varied, with his NS titles ranging from VP of personnel and labor relations to VP of information technology (IT) to president of NS subsidiary Thoroughbred Technology and Telecommunications (T-Cubed) to senior VP of corporate planning and services.

Change and the need to embrace it would continue to characterize Moorman's ladder climb, and it was never more apparent than during his stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s helming the IT department and T-Cubed.

"It really was a period in which the technology was starting to evolve — it was at the beginning of this whole concept of the emerging of client server technology, and the continuing proliferation of all kinds of hardware and software," he says. "There were an enormous amount of changes and challenges — certainly, the Conrail transaction and Y2K. And I will say that while I didn't learn to program in COBOL, or the intricacies of database structures, it taught me a lot about the power of technology when it's used correctly."

That lesson learned would continue to serve Moorman (and NS) well after he was named president in 2004, CEO in 2005, and chairman in 2006, succeeding Goode. NS continued to develop and implement an array of tools and systems, such as battery-powered locomotives, top-of-rail lubricators, electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems and train movement planning, and locomotive engineer training software.

"We have to work on being more efficient and productive, and there are a lot of technologies out there that can help us with that," Moorman says.

Not all technology investments pay off. Witness the experience with T-Cubed, which controlled and offered to telecommunication service providers 1,600 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure on NS' eastern rail corridors.

"At the end of the day, that was a failure — the world changed and T-Cubed failed," Moorman says. "But the company tolerated that failure because everyone knew that the risks were what they were. The lesson there is, don't be so risk averse that you miss out on a good opportunity. And I hope that we have, to some extent, that kind of culture here."

Under Moorman's watch, NS hasn't been risk averse when it comes to attempting to meet the enormous challenge of developing a new safety culture.

A New Gold Standard For Safety?

In January 2012, Moorman and the management team at NS, which had won 23 straight E.H. Harriman gold safety awards, began working to inculcate a safety culture change they believe will improve safety over the longer haul. The aim: to move away from traditional "negative reinforcement" practices and adopt a behavior-based safety program that emphasizes positive reinforcement to promote proper safe practices and focuses on determining the underlying reasons workers performed tasks in an unsafe manner.

The effort — which includes communication, problem-solving and positive reinforcement training — began in the operating department. So far, so good, Moorman says.

"When I'm out in the field, and I am a lot, I see more positive attitude [from] a lot of people — not just supervisors," he says. "I continue to be struck by how big of a change this is, in the general course of our company, and I continue to be reminded that this is a lengthy process — something that we're going to have to do from now on to make it stick."

As with any attempt to overhaul an organizational culture, communication is key. So is staying the course.

"I still see people who say, 'Is this for real?' and 'Are you going to keep it up?'" Moorman says. "We assure them that we will."

By now, NS employees need little in the area of assurances regarding the future of the Class I's intermodal franchise, which Moorman characterizes as "fabulous."

During Moorman's watch, investment in the railroad's strategic rail corridors have made NS an intermodal player to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. Consider:

  • The Crescent Corridor, a $2 billion initiative aimed at developing a 2,500-mile domestic intermodal route along existing lines between New Jersey and Louisiana.
  • The Heartland Corridor, a double-stack train route NS created through Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio that provides a faster, more efficient intermodal route between the Port of Hampton Roads and markets in Columbus, Chicago and other major cities.
  • And the aforementioned 320-mile Meridian Speedway, a KCS-NS joint venture aimed at increasing capacity and improving service between Meridian, Miss., and Shreveport, La.

"What Wick did was take the corridor approach that was in its infancy and he pushed it farther, and that's key," says Goode. "With all the new opportunities coming online — oil and gas, the sand and fracking — it shows the value of having rail corridors that are available to do whatever needs to be done."

Adds KCS' Haverty: "I think all of the strategic intermodal corridors that they're putting together in the Northeast and Southeast are going to pay huge dividends for Norfolk Southern, and [Wick] was determined to make them happen, just like he was determined to get it done with the Meridian Speedway. Wick clearly understands the value of the franchise."

Of course, NS hasn't just been investing in intermodal; like all Class Is, the railroad continues to invest railroad-wide. NS' 2013 capex plan is $2 billion (about the same amount the Class I spent in 2012), including $831 million for roadway improvements, such as the maintenance and replacement of rail, ties, ballast and bridges. NS also set aside $420 million to acquire new locomotives, rebuild and upgrade existing motive power, re-body coal cars, buy multi-level freight cars to accommodate more automotive traffic, and purchase intermodal containers and chassis.

"Wick has had the wisdom, and you could say the courage, to keep making the investment throughout the years that he's been CEO," Goode says.

Coal And A Period Of Transition

The investments will continue, Moorman says. So will the efforts to tap technology to drive productivity and efficiency; nurture that still-evolving safety culture; and leverage those strategic corridors; and to learn from revenue-generating successes, near-successes and failures. Particularly given coal's decline.

"I think it will come back, but I don't know how much or when," Moorman said during his AREMA luncheon keynote. "But we are still faced with the issue of one very profitable segment of business [coal] that is declining while we keep on building on intermodal, which provides good profitability but not like coal."

Meanwhile, the slow-growth economy likely will continue to rule.

"We're in a period of transition — we have to manage our way through it," Moorman told the AREMA luncheon attendees, speaking about NS, coal and the energy shift, but he might as well have been talking about the railroad industry as a whole. "I'm confident in our ability to do that, whichever way the world turns."

Spoken like a rail leader who is next-level ready.


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