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By Pat Foran, Editor
As a small-road exec, Norma Torres is a big-picture thinker. The president and chief operating officer of the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railroad (BRG) has spent the better part of the past 20 years connecting the dots and illustrating the integral role that short lines can and will play in the still-evolving global economy.
The inquisitive Torres learned her way to the top. As a manager, she is a nurturer who backs teamwork over individual play. She also thinks "family first" and wants BRG employees to know that it's more than OK to think that way, too.
"She relates to people on a personal basis — she's a good manager," says Port of Brownsville Deputy Port Director Donna Eymard, who chairs BRG's five-member board of trustees and has known Torres since the mid-1990s. "She's very good at what she does."
It took a few years for Torres to find her calling. Born and raised in Brownsville, Texas, the newlywed Torres left the southernmost tip of Texas in 1978, relocating about 300 miles northeast to Bay City, Texas. There, her husband took a job in a nuclear power plant. Torres' own first gig was as a nurse's aide at Matagorda Regional Medical Center.
"My dream was actually to become a nurse," she says. "How I got into railroading, I'm still trying to figure that out."
Her first career-path turn took her to a local Radio Shack, where she kept the books for about three years. After Torres, her husband and their first child moved back to palm-treed Brownsville in 1982, she signed on with the Port of Brownsville, where she kept the books for the ship dismantling yard operation. Torres spent the next seven years mastering her trade at the port, which was just steps away from Matamoros, Mexico.
At the port, she began to see a bigger picture. The flow of goods. The promise of international trade. The future — the port's, her family's, hers.
When the port closed the dismantling yard unit in 1989, Torres wasn't sure whether she'd be able to apply what she'd learned elsewhere, much less where the next turn would lead.
"I was thinking about going to go back to school," she says. "Then, they called me from the railroad office."
"The railroad office" was the BRG, located in the Brownsville Navigation District Administration offices on Port of Brownsville property. The port had created the short line in 1984 to operate 43 miles of track within the port complex after the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which had been acquired by Union Pacific Railroad, withdrew as a service provider in 1983.
BRG traffic interchanges with UP at the Class I's Olmito yard; a UP-BNSF Railway Co. haulage agreement enables UP to haul BNSF traffic from Houston to Brownsville, where it interchanges with BRG. The short line also interchanges with Kansas City Southern de México S.A. de C.V. via an intermediate switch with UP at the Brownsville & International Matamoros Bridge.
From her days at the port, Torres knew enough about railroading not to be scared off by the BRG call. Besides, she and her husband now had three children to support. Torres signed on as a BRG customer service agent in 1989.
"They hired me as a contract laborer," she says.
Shortly thereafter, she was promoted to bookkeeper.
"The accountant was getting ready to retire, went to the board and said, 'She is familiar with doing the books. Give her a chance,'" Torres says. "The board gave me a chance."
Torres kept making the most of her opportunities and the promotions kept coming. In 1994, she was named the short line's vice president of administration while also retaining her accounting responsibilities.
"To this day, we wear many hats at the BRG," she says.
For Torres, learning how and where other disciplines and functions fit had become part and parcel; as VP of administration, it meant getting better at railroading — and that much more of a glimpse of the bigger picture.
"I really started learning about railroading," she says. "It got into my blood — the way you connected with the rest of the world, the way products went out from the port and continued north or south."
After finishing her day in the office, she began to go out on the property as often as she could to keep learning. In 1998, Torres was promoted again — this time, to EVP.
Whatever her title, Torres wasn't shy about turning to others for help. One reason: Professionals she respected weren't, notably, Raul Besteiro Jr.
A consultant to the Port of Brownsville in the early 1990s, Besteiro — "Mr. B" to Torres — was named port director in 1997.
"With him, it was never, 'What I have done today' — it was about the group, the team," she says. "What I learned from him is you're only as good as the people you've got with you. It's all about working together and learning as much as you can. That, and never say 'can't.'"
Besteiro, who died in 2004, also was one of Torres' biggest fans.
"He was a big voice on the [BRG] board — he gave me a lot of credit and was always very positive," she says. "'She can run a railroad,' he would say."
In 2001, Torres got the chance: She was named president and COO.
"I think I was in the right place at the right time," she says.
Perhaps, but she's always made the most of her opportunities, Port of Brownsville's Eymard says. At BRG's helm, she's taken the ball and run with it — her way.
"She runs a pretty tight ship," Eymard says. "When she was named president, she knew more about the railroad than most of the people who had been there longer than she had."
Chalk it up to her willingness to listen and learn.
"When I was named president in 2001, most of my employees were men, and I went to them and said, 'I still have a lot to learn '" she says. "They taught me a lot."
Along the way, she also learned a bit about what it takes to be a locomotive engineer.
"I only got as far as becoming a student locomotive engineer ... [but] I did complete the school training to become a brakeman," she says. "The only reason I did this [was] if at any time we are short of people, I can help out my managers in any way I can."
Preparing for potential shortages of skilled railroaders also prompted Torres to promote organizational cross-training. She wants BRG employees to have the opportunity to rise through the railroad's ranks just as she did.
That kind of nurturing, along with Torres' regard for employees' personal well-being ("We've got a railroad to run, yes, but family comes first"), are potent motivators and have helped keep BRG's workforce happy, Eymard says.
"They have very little turnover — Torres has the utmost respect for her employees and they, her," she says. "They don't work for her, they work with her. They all take ownership and pride in what they do, and that comes from the top."
Like most railroads, BRG probably needed every bit of that pride (and more) to make it through this past recessionary stretch. In 2009, BRG moved 22,399 carloads, a 25.9 percent decline compared with 2008's total of 30,102 carloads.
"It was the economy," Torres says. "But my board was very supportive. We cut everywhere we had to cut, but we didn't lay anybody off."
So far this year, BRG's 47 employees have been busy and likely will get busier as 2010 unfolds.
"It looks like business is starting to pick up — January and February already showed there's a lot of activity at the Port of Brownsville, and that looks good for us," Torres says. "Our main commodity is steel — 74 percent of our business goes into Mexico. Steel is coming back."
Torres hopes that grain traffic, which was down considerably last year, will return in 2010, as well. Longer term, trend lines and BRG's business outlook look as good as they looked pre-recession, she says.
"One thing that might be next at the Port of Brownsville — we currently don't do any container business," she says. "We would like to get into the intermodal business."
For now, Torres will continue to nurture BRG the way she has for the past decade. Now a grandmother, she also will do her best to ensure she minds the "family first" message she's spent most of her managerial life sending.
"I have been very lucky to have had the support of my husband and board of directors, and all my employees," Torres says. "Without that, I don't think I would have been able to succeed as I have."