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By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
How does an English literature major in college wind up in the railroad business?
Deb Butler chuckles when she’s asked that question, no doubt one she's been asked before. She acknowledges that the degree she earned at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., doesn’t appear to be the typical educational preparation for a life in railroading.
"I came into the business strictly by accident," says Butler, a native of Memphis, Tenn. "Back then, I didn’t have any family members in the business. And while I was living in the dorms at Agnes Scott, I certainly never considered that a career in rail would be one of the major things in my life."
A major thing, indeed. Butler has spent the past 35 years in railroading, all of it with Norfolk Southern Corp., where she now is executive vice president of planning and chief information officer.
As she explains it, her career path began with the reality that most women with liberal arts degrees faced in the mid-to-late 1970s: limited job options. In Butler’s case, the few possibilities boiled down to insurance sales, retail, teaching or enrolling in law or graduate school.
She opted for the retail industry, where she worked for about a year. Then she moved on to a nonprofit international exchange organization in Atlanta, where she quickly realized that her chance of earning more than a bare-minimum salary would improve only if she had an advanced degree in business. So, she enrolled in a program at Georgia State University, where one of her professors, Tom McConnell, happened to be director of customer and car accounting at Southern Railway Co., an NS predecessor. (The company became Norfolk Southern in the early 1980s.)
The next turn in Butler’s story was one of those chance occurrences that can lead to life-changing opportunities. A business trip for her nonprofit employer meant she had to miss taking an exam for a business class. To make up the test, she had to go to McConnell’s office at Southern Railway.
Butler went to the railroad and took the exam. She did so well on it that McConnell offered her a job, which paid 50 percent more than what she was making at the nonprofit.
"The only catch was that the country was in the middle of a coal-miners' strike, so the railroad had a hiring freeze in place," Butler recalls. "He offered me the job but said I couldn't come to work until the coal strike was over. So I, someone who had no knowledge about coal strikes, began watching the news every night looking for an end to the strike."
Butler came on board in 1978 as a customer account auditor in the railroad's accounting department. A year later, she was promoted to supervisor of car distribution in the company’s operations control center.
For the next 28 years, she moved into positions of increasing responsibility — including assistant VP of transportation customer services in 2000 and VP of customer service in 2002. In 2007, she was promoted to her current post, which required her to move from Atlanta to NS' headquarters in Norfolk, Va., where she reports directly to Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Wick Moorman.
"My groups were the biggest consumers of technology on the railroad, and I probably complained the longest and loudest about the pace of technology and the need for more attention and resources applied to technology," Butler says. "So, Wick brought me up to Norfolk and said, 'OK, [information technology] is yours,' as well as strategic planning. And I've recently taken on the real estate and corporate sustainability groups."
Today, Butler is among NS' highest-ranking executives and principal officers. She's never been tempted to leave the Class I because of the "interesting set of responsibilities" she's been assigned over years, she says.
"This is such a complex business, much more complex than I think most people realize," says Butler. “When you look at what goes on behind the scenes of making everything work, it’s so interesting. I’ve always had jobs where I believed I was able to make a difference.”
Although Butler never returned to Georgia State to finish that business degree, she did complete studies in advanced transportation management at Northwestern University, executive education at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and the advanced management program at Harvard Business School.
Her NS leadership duties include chairing the company’s Fast Track Steering Committee and Environmental Policy Council, as well as the boards of NS affiliates Thoroughbred Technology & Communications and TTX Co.
Outside the company, she chairs the Executive Committee of the Transportation Research Board and is the past chair of the National Grain Car Council, the Women's Transportation Seminar's Atlanta Chapter and the American Council of Railroad Women.
Butler is highly regarded by her railroad industry peers. (Those peers now include a younger sister, Peggy Harris, who is general manager of passenger operations at Union Pacific Railroad.) In late September, Butler was honored as the "Outstanding Woman of the Year" by the League of Railway Industry Women (LRIW). The annual award, co-sponsored by LRIW and Progressive Railroading and presented to Butler at Railway Interchange 2013 in Indianapolis, recognizes an individual’s dedication, commitment and contribution to the rail industry.
As she accepted the award, Butler expressed gratitude for the colleagues, friends and mentors who shared their "knowledge, skills, advice and a love of railroading" with her over the years. In return, she has felt obligated to give back by offering guidance and mentoring to the next generation of railroaders, Butler told the conference attendees.
And give back she has. Butler helped create the "Women In Norfolk Southern" (WIN) employee resource group, which will mark its 10th anniversary next year. Open to women and men, the group was established by Butler, NS Executive Vice President of Administration Cindy Earhart and former NS executive Kathryn McQuade to help develop new leadership among the NS workforce.
"WIN gives opportunities for employees to educate themselves about what is going on at the railroad," Butler adds. "We have quarterly lunches that feature [guest] speakers and leadership coaches. It's a really successful, thriving group with more than 1,400 members both from within management and the agreement workforce."
The group also aims to help support women within the NS ranks. For the railroad industry, recruiting and retaining female employees remains a challenge, Butler acknowledges.
"This is a demanding industry. It is very difficult, under the best of circumstances, to approach work-life balance," says Butler, who has three grown children. "It's not just hard on women, it's hard on anyone with a family."
WIN is one way the company is trying to encourage female railroaders by offering opportunities to connect with others who have work and life circumstances similar to their own.
Butler tries to support young professionals by serving as a mentor to people inside and outside the company, as well. The advice she offers them boils down to a simple message: Work hard, treat people well, always act with integrity and stay positive.
And, just as she accepted a job offer in an industry she initially knew nothing about, Butler encourages up-and-comers not to be afraid of taking on a challenge, even if it's in unfamiliar territory.
"A lot of people shy away from the big, complex projects because they're afraid they’ll get lost in them and that wouldn't be good for their careers," she says. "But I've always said those are exactly the projects you should go after."
A great example of one such a project is the railroad industry's implementation of positive train control (PTC), the anti-crash technology that the federal government is requiring railroads to adopt by the end of 2015.
"The people who are heading up PTC projects are the rock stars of the railroad industry," Butler says. "PTC is a very difficult, complex project, but the people who are leading it now are the future leaders of our companies."
As for the mentors who’ve helped her along the way, Butler still relies on their advice. Among them: Moorman, who she says has encouraged her to advance in the company ever since the two met in the early 1990s, when he was assistant VP of transportation planning and she was in a car management role.
They both served on a multi-departmental team that created a technology vision for moving NS forward as a modern railroad. Moorman chaired the team and Butler wrote its final report.
"And I am still astonished how what we have at the company today mirrors what we had put together so many years ago," she says. "Wick is someone who I certainly credit with giving me all kinds of opportunities at Norfolk Southern."
At 58, Butler says she's looking forward to many more opportunities at NS before she thinks about retirement. Outside the railroad, she is involved in several community and nonprofit organizations in the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area.
She also enjoys spending time with her daughters, ages 28 and 25 — the eldest works for an international translation business in Paris and the youngest attends culinary school in London — and her son, 19, who's in his second year at the University of Virginia, where he’s studying pre-med.
When she's ready to retire from her full-time railroad career, Butler will be looking for — what else? — a new challenge. She hopes that challenge might involve a different mode of transportation: flight.
"I've had the opportunity to fly in small private planes fairly often, and what I would like to do is learn how to land them," she says. "The taking off is not the hard part. It's the landing that's difficult — and arguably, the most important."
Email comments or questions to Julie Sneider.