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By Pat Foran, editor
In short-line circles, Judy Petry is renowned for her quick wit and a curiosity that won’t quit. The confident controller for short-line holding company Farmrail System Inc. is clearly comfortable in her own skin. She wasn’t always.
“I used to be rather shy, believe it or not — no one in the industry who knows me now believes me when I say that,” says Petry, who joined Farmrail, which operates two Oklahoma railroads, in 1987. “My personality changed, and it’s largely because of this industry and what I’ve learned from it.”
What has she learned? That the rail world, particularly the short-line corner of it, is inherently interconnected; every link in the chain contributes, and contributes mightily, to the collective good. That treating people the way you’d want to be treated isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good business. That anything is possible if you’re ready, willing and able to make it happen. And that the opportunities to learn just keep on coming.
“Out of my ignorance, or maybe because of it, I developed the ability to be comfortable asking questions,” Petry says. “What amazes me is how willing people are to come forth with answers.”
Petry’s colleagues are pretty amazed by her, too. This past fall, she received The League of Railway Industry Women’s (LRIW) 2008 “Outstanding Woman of the Year Award.” Sponsored by Progressive Railroading, the award recognizes an individual’s dedication, commitment and contribution to the rail industry.
Petry’s ability to see the big picture and analyze issues has made her an ideal advocate, colleagues say. Accordingly, she’s played key roles on a variety of committees and boards, ranging from the Railcar Management Inc. (RMI) Users’ Group to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) Short Line Integration Team.
“Just as she is always thinking in terms of what is good for the team, so is Judy able to advocate what can benefit short lines collectively,” wrote Farmrail Chief Executive Officer George Betke in nominating Petry for the LRIW honor.
Petry didn’t always view the world through such a prism. She was raised in Lacassine, La., a small rice farming community in the state’s southwest corner. Five of her six siblings already had left home by the time she was 11.
“I grew up a loner, a bookworm — I read everything I could get my hands on,” she says. “It’s still that way. When I’ve got my nose in a book, it’s the only time the world stops.”
Petry’s father managed the local rice dryer, or co-op, for more than 20 years. Sometimes, she’d tag along and watch the loading and unloading.
“It’s where I first got interested in the railroad,” Petry says. “I remember being fascinated by the trains.”
But she had an affinity for accounting, a skill a high school teacher nurtured.
“She felt it was my calling,” Petry says.
After graduating from high school in 1975, Petry pursued an accounting degree at Jefferson Davis Vocational Technical School in nearby Jennings. Thanks in part to the help she’d received in high school, Petry earned her two-year degree in a little more than a year. Shortly thereafter, she landed a job with an accounting firm in Jennings, where she stayed for the next half-dozen years.
In 1982, Petry took an accounting position at a private buyers’ service, where she spent a year learning a little something about possibility and a lot about herself. Her new boss, Al Odom, had a rule: The word “can’t” wasn’t to be uttered. Ever. “He had you put a dollar in a jar if you did,” she says.
Odom’s point: Anything is possible.
“It’s all about your attitude and your willingness to do something, if you really want it badly enough,” Petry says.
His life lesson soon was put to the test. In 1983, Petry’s husband, Steven, whom she married in 1976, accepted an oil industry job in Oklahoma. But Petry didn’t want to leave Louisiana or the rest of her family. She stayed behind with their 1-year-old son. A few weeks after Steven left, Petry learned she was pregnant with their second child.
“My boss said: ‘I need you to tell me why you’re not moving.’ I said, ‘I’m not a risk taker,’” Petry recalls. “I felt like Steven was chasing the pot at the end of a rainbow, and I wasn’t willing to take that chance. And then Al Odom — the man who told me I couldn’t use the word ‘can’t’ — told me I couldn’t stay. ‘You’re about to make the worst decision you can make,’ he said. ‘If you stay here, you’ll spend the rest of your life asking ‘What if?’”
In other words: Not trying is saying “I can’t” without opening your mouth. Taking chances is risky but so is not taking them. It’s all about attitude. About wanting something badly enough to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
So, Petry called Steven. She and their son would join him in Elk City, Okla. Team Petry, she decided, would tackle whatever life dished out. About a year after the Petry’s moved to Elk City, life dished out a doozie. The Oklahoma oil boom burst. “The town emptied overnight,” she says. “There was no work to be had.”
For awhile, Petry took care of the kids while Steven took every job he could get. Eventually, she began doing some accounting for a convenience store run by a friend who knew the manager of administration at Farmrail, which since 1981 had served as a lessee-operator for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, managing an 82-mile line between Weatherford and Erick.
When Farmrail was about to purchase 176 contiguous route-miles linking Enid and Frederick from the Burlington Northern, Farmrail’s manager of administration encouraged Petry to apply for an accounting position. She did. In June 1987, she began handling Farmrail’s accounts receivable/payable and payroll.
Early on, it appeared as if there wouldn’t be room for advancement. A manager told Petry she should never aspire to anything more than being a “good bean counter” at Farmrail.
“I remember saying, ‘That’s fine, I’m working to put food on the table,’” she says. “I wasn’t looking for a career.”
But Petry didn’t have to look for a career to begin carving one out; it began to unfold while she pressed ahead, determined to do whatever it took to learn. A 1988 ASLRRA meeting in Tulsa, Okla., proved to be pivotal.
“Walking into that meeting room was like walking into church — all the back pews were filled up, so I had to go to the front of the room,” Petry says, adding that she was anything but confident at that point in her career. “The room got quieter and quieter. Then I realized: I was the only woman there.”
But Petry was there to learn, and learn she would. All she had to do was ask.
“The men in that room could have chosen to ignore me, but most didn’t,” she says. “I believe it was because I wasn’t afraid to say, ‘Hey, I’m new. I don’t know jack squat about what you’re talking about. Can you explain it to me?’ And many of them did.”
Petry kept asking questions, and she kept learning. In 1990, a Farmrail exec talked with Petry about RMI, an Atlanta company that was working to capture short-line data electronically.
“We were doing everything manually, so I was asked to investigate it,” she says.
With help from the folks at RMI, Petry learned about EDI and “a whole plethora of things” she says she “had no clue about.” It didn’t take her long to clue herself, and Farmrail’s roads, in.
“I don’t know how many railroads were moving data electronically at the time — Class Is were, but it wasn’t a huge number,” says Petry, who was promoted to controller in 1992. “I believe we were one of the first, and the first short line in Oklahoma to begin doing it.”
Meanwhile, Petry began to broaden her industry horizons, attending RMI Users’ Group meetings, ultimately serving a stint as the group’s president. She also stepped up her involvement in other ways, serving on numerous ASLRRA committees and boards. In 2008, Petry chaired ASLRRA’s annual meeting.
Her commitment to the short-line cause and willingness to share what she’s learned haven’t gone unnoticed.
“Judy works tirelessly for the ASLRRA and the railroad industry as a whole,” wrote RMI AVP Gary Griswell in nominating Petry for the LRIW award. “She has the respect of her peers in the short-line community, as well as those [at] the Class I railroads.”
It’s all about that willingness to do whatever it takes for the greater good, Petry says, crediting Farmrail CEO Betke for helping her stay the course.
“George has taught me that, collectively, we are stronger than any of us could be individually — that it’s more important to be part of a team,” she says. “And regardless of the outcome, it’s important how you play the game.”
Petry aims to inculcate her staff of six — who handle the accounting for Farmrail corporate, Grainbelt, and joint venture affiliates Finger Lakes Railway Corp. and the Ontario Central — with the same lesson.
“We have to be team players, whether it’s an administrative task or one in which we help another department,” she says. “We do whatever it takes, whether or not it’s in the job description.”
For Petry, it also means doing her part to keep the dialogue going — within Farmrail as well as the short-line universe. It’s the least she can do, she figures.
“I am grateful that people took the time to answer my questions, even the silly ones,” Petry says. “They helped me not only to grow in this industry, but as a woman, as a person, as a mother and as a wife. It’s all about communicating.”