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It’s there, in her multi-layered rail resumé. It’s there, in the words she chooses to characterize her approach to work. It’s sewn into her soul: Donna Acors is all about learning — as in how to get better at this thing called “railroading,” as well as simply how to get better. And to help others improve, as well.
It’s part and parcel with the continuous improvement efforts at CSX Transportation, where Acors is general manager of customer service. She’s served the Class I and predecessor Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Co. (C&O) in numerous capacities since 1970. She’s been a secretary, a trainmaster and a service design planner. She’s managed a business unit. She’s held numerous posts in the customer-service realm. And she’s learned — a lot — along the way.
“I began to see that railroading wasn’t just a good job, or a good industry to work in — it was more,” Acors says. “The railroad is a place where you can grow.”
Grow professionally, Acors has. And her colleagues aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed. In September, Acors received the League of Railway Industry Women’s (LRIW) 2007 “Outstanding Woman of the Year Award.” Sponsored by Progressive Railroading, the award recognizes an individual’s dedication, commitment and contribution to the railroad industry.
“Over the past 37 years, [Acors] has acquired the knowledge and skills to serve in operations, sales and customer service posts within CSX,” wrote CSXT Vice President of Customer Operations Shelley Cooper in her nomination letter to the LRIW award committee. “Through it all, she served with distinction and an unwavering determination to learn, grow and share her expertise with her fellow workers.”
SOAKING IT ALL IN
Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Acors got her start in 1969 working part-time as an extra board clerk for the C&O.
“My high school bookkeeping teacher told me if I needed a part-time job, the railroad would be a good-paying position,” she says.
Acors, who had been attending Virginia Commonwealth University, ended up signing on as a full-time C&O stenographer in 1970. (“In those days, everybody had a secretary,” she says.) For the next 14 years, Acors held various positions in the general office, including rate clerk, rate and division clerk, and claim investigator. She cites C&O Eastern Regional General Manager John Edwards, for whom she served as secretary from 1984 to 1986, as a particularly influential mentor.
“He was the epitome of a railroader,” Acors says. “He believed in the railroad.”
His passion and commitment rubbed off. Acors believed, too. So, when Acors had an opportunity to reinforce the railway ties that had begun to bind, she did. In 1986, she transferred into the transportation department as an assistant trainmaster-TSC, working second shift at Fulton Yard in Richmond.
There was definitely a transition with this transfer.
“Back then, there were very few women in the yard office, so to go in as an assistant manager was ... interesting,” Acors says. “But I was lucky. I worked with and learned from an absolutely wonderful group of people.”
She spent the next six years as a trainmaster, a stretch Acors characteristically termed as yet another opportunity to soak it all in.
“That’s when I began to see what the railroad was all about,” she says.
WHEN ‘LATERAL’ IS ‘FORWARD’
The rail education of Donna Acors was just beginning. In 1992, she was named assistant manager of the customer service center in Jacksonville, Fla., where she and her colleagues “maintained yard inventories and did all the paperwork for the trains.”
She continued taking career tangents. From 1993 to 1995, she served as plan manager-service design; from 1995 to 1996, as plan manager-Chicago Nashville Corridor; and from 1996 through 1997, manager of the automotive business unit.
“In a couple of instances, I made lateral moves, but I really got into the development of the service from all angles,” Acors says. “I realized once I got to Jacksonville that you need a vast array of experience.”
Presuming, of course, that you’re looking to continue to grow as a professional. And to learn. By 1997, Acors had earned her bachelor’s degree in management from Jacksonville University. In 1999, she received an MBA from the University of North Florida. She landed both degrees while learning the ins and outs of another new position: director of customer service, a post that ended up providing enough rail-life lessons to last a lifetime.
In 1998, the Surface Transportation Board blessed the joint acquisition of Conrail by CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. On June 1, 1999, operations commenced on the new CSXT network, which included the acquired Conrail territory.
The difficult-to-digest Conrail integration took its toll on all CSXT employees, perhaps none moreso than the customer-service staffers, who worked their share of 16-plus-hour days during the second half of 1999 and into 2000. But for Acors, the Conrail integration struggle served as yet another lesson.
"To deal first-hand with customers who have issues, customers who know you as their lifeline to the railroad and getting that other side of the story — you didn’t see that in service design,” she says. “You really got to see the different sides.”
A ‘QUALITY’ CHAMPION
And in Acors, CSXT brass saw a multi-faceted gem. In 2000, CSXT selected her as one of the railroad’s 40 “best and brightest” to enter full-time training in Six Sigma — loosely, a philosophy of doing business with a focus on eliminating defects through fundamental process knowledge.
After 18 months of intensive training, Acors earned the coveted Black Belt certification. And she was bent on putting what she’d earned to good use.
As superintendent of customer transaction analysis — a position created for her — Acors streamlined a variety of processes and developed best practices, from a new customer information security policy to a revamped escalation process designed to help customer service staffers resolve customer issues more efficiently. In short order, Acors “led a radical turnaround in quality at CSX’s Customer Service Department, surpassing budget goals and improving processes significantly,” wrote CSXT’s Cooper in her letter to the LRIW.
As evidence, Cooper cites a 150-point boost in CSXT’s customer satisfaction rating in a 2006-2007 J.D. Power and Associates customer service study.
“As her supervisor, I can attest to her tireless commitment to CSX, its customers and members of her team,” Cooper wrote. “There has never been a task or challenge she couldn’t master.”
Or learn from and then share with others. Acors has been an active participant in CSXT’s new-hire Associate Development program, a structured, personalized mentoring initiative linking an employee with a coach for one year; Inroads, a program for minority high school students; Six Sigma Black Belt training; and the CSX Global Diversity Council.
“Her personal successes have been a springboard for sharing knowledge with her colleagues,” Cooper says.
Not to mention the community at large. Acors is active in the Jacksonville business set, serving as vice chair of the Seaboard Credit Union’s board and an adjunct professor at Webster University, where she teaches a business course in the School of Business & Technology. She’s also active in Habijax, the local Habit for Humanity, as well as American Heart Association and juvenile diabetes-related events.
For Acors, giving back is all part of the student-teacher circle of life.
“You have to pay it forward, and I want to know that I’ve done everything I could to make sure people succeed,” she says. “All of us want to leave some type of legacy. For me, it’s teaching others.”
Consider that legacy left, Ms. Acors.