Watch: Watco at 40

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
(Image Courtesy of Watco)

(Image Courtesy of Watco)

Pittsburg, Kans.-based Watco is celebrating 40 years of service this month. The transportation and logistics provider’s secret to reaching the milestone? A “culture of caring.”

In four decades, Watco has grown from a single railcar switching operation for Boise Cascade in DeRidder, La., to a company comprising 45 short lines, 29 contract switching sites, 75 terminals and ports, 10 repair and maintenance terminals, and 27 logistics offices. Its 4,855 employees in North America and Australia serve nearly 5,000 customers.

Watco’s growth stems from its commitment to taking care of the customer—a “value instilled by founder Dick Webb,” Watco wrote in the July edition of The Dispatch, its employee magazine.

Charles R. “Dick” Webb and his wife, Kaye Lynne, “leveraged everything they had and purchased a locomotive,” according to Watco. With eight team members, they started the DeRidder switching operation in 1983. Their son, Rick Webb, joined the company in 1984, and together they added a railcar repair shop and a short line railroad. Later, the family expanded into material handling and storage, transportation project design and development, and other aspects of moving commodities and products.

“Besides laying the groundwork for Watco’s integrated services, Dick fostered an entrepreneurial spirit and instilled values of humility, fairness and respect for others that endure today,” according to Watco.

“The foundation principles weren’t documented,” SVP of Operations Keith LaCaze told The Dispatch. “But the Webb family taught us to value the customer, value each other, and safely improve every day. They ingrained it in us. They believed if we achieved that, then Watco would be successful. And he [Dick] wasn’t wrong.”

LaCaze joined Watco in 1985 after graduating from high school. “And that summer job turned into the rest of my life,” he said. LaCaze started as a railcar custodian and rose through the ranks to switch operator, night shift foreman, location manager, and regional supervisor, among other roles. “I grew up with a growing company,” LaCaze said. “But my goals have remained consistent—work hard and treat my teammates and customers the way I would want to be treated.” He told The Dispatch that he remembers Dick Webb working alongside the rest of the team, switching railcars and making repairs.

In 1998, Rick Webb took the throttle as CEO. “He kept his dad’s vision for the company alive while also expanding and diversifying Watco’s services,” according to The Dispatch. Among his many achievements, Rick Webb is credited with establishing Watco operations in Australia, as well as adding ports, terminals and logistics to Watco’s service mix. (Railway Age readers in 2021 named Rick Webb as one of the industry’s “Most Influential Leaders.”)  

Watco Milestones:

• 1983: Watco begins switching operations on July 1, in DeRidder, La., for Boise Cascade.
• 1985: Coffeyville, Kans., Mechanical Shop opens.
• 1987: The company purchases Union Pacific’s first short line spinoff. It eventually becomes part of Watco’s South Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad. (SKOR in 2022 was named Railway Age’s Regional Railroad of the Year.)
• 2008: Watco’s Terminal & Ports Business begins after a customer requests transloading services.
• 2010: The company “goes international” with a long-term contract to move grain in Austrailia, with operations starting in 2012.
• 2014: Watco’s most recent core service, Watco Logistics, is added to the mix.
• 2022: Newsweek names Watco to its list of America’s 100 Most Loved Workplaces®.
• 2023: Newsweek names Watco to its list of Top 100 Global Most Loved Workplaces®.

Dan Smith became CEO in 2018, and is “leading us into a new era,” according to LaCaze, who says Smith “has that same ‘I got your back’ mentality.

Watco CEO Dan Smith

Smith wrote in The Dispatch that he is “very proud to be associated with our team members, customers, investors, and industry partners past and present who have brought Watco such success.

“To get us here, great people have provided great service. Since the day when our first team switched railcars for our first customer in DeRidder, La., we’ve been responding to our customers’ needs and growing with them. We’ll continue to grow and change with our customers, but one thing that cannot change going forward is our culture.

“Not long ago, I was interviewed about Watco and our award-winning culture, and I talked about the importance of being genuine and sincere in business. I also said that some things weren’t negotiable—like being safe and responsible, and treating people with respect. I said that if we conducted ourselves in this way, everything else would fall into place, and I meant it. The profitability will take care of itself.

“We’ve been doing business this way for 40 years, and that’s exactly what we’ll continue to do. If we stick to our core values of taking care of customers and one another, we’ll thrive for another 40 years and beyond.” (For more on Watco culture, read Smith’s recent Railway Age essay: “People Matter Most.”)

Watco counts Bartlett Grain as one of its first customers and it remains a partner today. SVP Joe Griffith told The Dispatch that there “has been a long history of trust and reliance” between the companies. At Bartlett Grain, “[w]e know the culture and people that stand behind the name and service Watco represents,” he reported. “Given the customer-first approach by Watco, we trust our investments on their network of infrastructure will be given the best opportunity to establish a foothold and create a sustainable position in the marketplace.”

Summed up Watco Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Nick Coomes: “For the Watco team, good customer service means always trying to find a way to say ‘yes.’ We go where our customers take us. Watco’s integrated services allow us to tackle any supply chain challenge, no matter how big or small.”

“Watco cares. It feels like home. We treat each other as family. We’re all one team, One Watco. No matter who you ask about Watco, the culture of caring comes through.” (Video Courtesy of Watco)
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