CEO PERSPECTIVE: People Matter Most

Written by Dan Smith, CEO, Watco
Dan Smith, CEO, Watco

Dan Smith, CEO, Watco

As part of a special series in Railway Age’s April 2023 issue, 13 chief executives of leading North American companies answer the single-most critical question: What is the biggest challenge facing the North American rail industry? Dan Smith of Watco is the eighth to share his perspective.

I believe all Railway Age readers will agree: There is no greater transportation system in the world than the North American freight rail network. No other transportation mode moves as many different commodities, as much volume, over greater distances, safer and more efficiently, than our North American freight rail network. But without the great men and women who make it happen each day—those who work the ground and those who support them—this great network would be useless. It is the people who matter most. 

Recently, I have watched, read and listened to harsh criticisms of our industry. But times of challenge bring opportunity. The opportunity in front of us now is real. We have a chance to show the resiliency and dependability of our great industry. We can do that by demonstrating every day what all of us already know: People matter most.

There is no doubt we all suffer, especially our customers, when our industry stumbles. Whether caused by man, machine or an act of God, no industry works harder to improve and overcome while continuing to meet the needs of our customers. The show must go on—even during times of immense challenge. I know the great people within our industry will always rise above the challenge and seize the opportunity. They always do, even when it isn’t simple, and even when it costs more than it should.

When I think about what the biggest threat is against this great industry, it isn’t safety, or service, or strategy. I think it is much simpler than that. I think it is finding, keeping and developing the right people. It is making sure the people that work within our industry stay inspired to do great things, safely and better than yesterday. It is about making sure the people who count on our industry for service remain satisfied with how we perform, every single day. And it is about making sure the people who watch us perform don’t place unreasonable limitations on our industry, probably because we didn’t do the first two things well enough. It is about always remembering people matter most. 

At Watco, we embrace putting our customers and our people first. We work hard to keep our heads down and do a good job, every day, for our customers and our team members. We aren’t perfect. We don’t get it right every time. But our greatest measure of success at Watco is the satisfaction of our customers and our team. We know that if the men and women wearing Watco jerseys are prepared and inspired each day, they will give us their best effort. Their best effort satisfies our customers and makes Watco safer and more efficient. 

Our approach is simple to explain but complicated to execute. It is easier said than done. But the one thing we will keep doing every day is focusing on what matters most: making sure our people are prepared and inspired to do great things for our customers—safely, quietly, and in an unassuming manner. We believe that you will always win when you focus on people, because people matter most. 

Read more of Railway Age’s special CEO Perspectives series:

Katie Farmer, BNSF

Tracy Robinson, CN

Joe Hinrichs, CSX

Jack Hellmann, Genesee & Wyoming

Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern

Lance Fritz, Union Pacific

Patty Long, Railway Supply Institute

Keith Creel, Canadian Pacific

Ian Jefferies, Association of American Railroads

John Newman, Progress Rail

Marc Buncher, Siemens Mobility

Peter Gilbertson, Anacostia Rail Holdings

Smith will be a featured speaker at the inaugural ‘Railway Age Young Professionals’ conference, to be held virtually May 11.

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