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Kyle Van Koughnett, 39
Director of transload strategy
Nominator’s quote: “Kyle has a unique ability to connect internal teams, create efficiencies, be more competitive and thereby help customers transition freight onto rail. He is a passionate guy who converges details and data with commercial teams to tackle complex logistics and create solutions.” — Gurpreet Khaira, Canadian Pacific
What is your educational background?
I have an engineering and business background. I went to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, for a degree in engineering and ended up doing an economics degree as well. B.S. computer engineering, B.A. economics.
Describe your current job and responsibilities.
At Canadian Pacific (CP) as director of transload strategy, I lead a team that is responsible for the development of all new transload facilities and enhancement of existing facilities on our network. We work to support private developers and lead CP’s own development efforts in creating sustainable transloads and facilities that convert truck traffic into rail movement. In our first year we’ve achieved significant successes, launching several new locations and growing transloading-related line haul by more than 30 percent.
Describe your career path.
I spent the first eight years of my career in the electricity generation industry, developing new coal, gas and cogeneration facilities across Canada and the Northeast United States. That’s when I realized how much I enjoyed chasing big commercial deals that ultimately let you point at a building and say, “I had a part in building this.” When the crude-by-rail industry picked up steam, I was sought out by a company to lead their transload development efforts, and ultimately the commercial side of the business.
After four years of the ups and downs of crude-by-rail and seeing the unique opportunities having the railroad as a partner could bring, I joined CP as director of market strategy. In that role I focused on long-term planning. I spent the first two years working to lay out long-term plans. Now I get to lead the team that implements those plans.
Why did you get into the railroad industry?
I had never thought about railroading, but in 2013 I was approached by a crude-by-rail company that needed help building new facilities. I faced some of the most difficult development projects of my career during this time, but our partnership with our serving carrier enabled us to complete more than $100 million in new developments within the first two years. The more I learned about the railroading side of the world, the more it fascinated me.
As I learned about the number of commodities that move by rail every day and the interesting problems rail solves for shippers, I wanted to be a part of the industry. Whether a light switch or a transload, these are critical pieces of infrastructure that the public demands work every day without giving much thought to what that means. Now I get to work with new commodities and shippers every day and learn about their businesses while creating new ways to help them. It’s a complex and interesting business with so much potential for growth.
What is the best career advice you’ve received?
The first time I told a leader I would try to make a difficult development project happen, I was told: “Do or do not; there is no try.’” It’s simple, but it’s stuck with me that trying means giving yourself permission to fail when you’re not optimistic on a hard project. Doing commits you to action, and word choice matters whether convincing other people or yourself.
What advice would you give to a new railroader?
Railroading is a unique and historic business that will get into your blood. Whether you work in marketing/sales or operations, you need to get down to the details of not only what’s important to the shipper, but to other parts of the railroad. The biggest wins in my career have come from absorbing information and identifying small changes the railroad or customer can make that have a significant impact on the overall value proposition.
What was your very first job?
Right out of university I worked in a 24-hour control center for the electrical system operator in Alberta as an engineer-in-training. It was the first time I saw how complex the systems our daily lives rely on are, and it taught me that I was better at solving business problems than I was at technical fixes.
Describe a fun fact about yourself.
My job can involve a lot of travel, and one thing I do to keep it fun for myself is working through bucket lists of regional specialties/things that exist across North America. Right now I’m working through the best burger chains in America.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old who keep me pretty busy these days, especially as they home-school during the COVID work shutdowns. When I get spare time in the evenings I love to read, and my Kindle is pretty worn down. I tend to rotate between trying to read a business text or thought-provoking book, or science fiction.
What is the biggest challenge the rail industry now faces or will face?
COVID-19 is positioning itself to be a unique headwind to supply chains in the United States and Canada, and has created significant geopolitical and macroeconomic challenges. It’s more important than ever that we focus on controlling the things that we’re able to control. For developers and transloads, that means taking a disciplined approach to project development, a focus on driving capital costs down and looking for ways to deliver growth or value to shippers by redeploying assets.