2021 Railway Age Readers’ Influential Leaders

Written by Railway Age Staff

RAILWAY AGE MAY 2021 ISSUE: The mantra of these railroaders: Making a difference. They’re not only helping to shape the industry, but also tomorrow’s leaders.

The results are in. Through Railway Age’s second annual Readers’ Influential Leaders online poll, qualified subscribers nominated a large number of active (non-retired) people from all areas of the North American railway industry. We are pleased to present the top 10 nominees here, plus five leaders receiving honorable mention. They are all committed to service and sustainability. 

Annie Adams, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer, Norfolk Southern 

Engaging employees, building bridges between generations in the workplace, and ensuring sustainability are important industry-wide, and they are among Adams’ achievements at NS. She joined the company in 2001 and has risen through the human resources and planning ranks. Appointed Vice President Human Resources in 2016, she was charged with developing and executing talent strategies and employee engagement initiatives. 

Adams took on her current role in 2019, with responsibility for Information Technology, Human Resources, Labor Relations, Corporate Communications, Sustainability, and Corporate Giving. She heads up many efforts that are fundamentally changing how NS does business. For example, the Digital | NS initiative is accelerating the company’s digital transformation and building the digital railroad of the future. Another key element of the railroad’s transformation: relocating the Norfolk, Va., corporate headquarters to Atlanta, Ga. Adams has led the new campus’ development, and employee health and well-being are central to the design, which leverages smart building technology and flexible workspaces, including outdoor spaces, to promote inclusion and collaboration.

With sustainability oversight, Adams coordinates a company-wide commitment that includes locomotive fuel efficiency improvements, hybrid intermodal crane investments, carbon credit programs that benefit customers, and environmental stewardship initiatives. 

Michael Cleveland, Senior Manager, Emerging Technology, BNSF 

Cleveland leads BNSF’s battery electrification and energy storage initiative, which he established in 2018. Its aim is to reduce the railroad’s environmental footprint and costs through vehicle technology projects. BNSF has implemented battery-electric yard tractors, sideloaders, and hybrid rubber tire gantry cranes. Cleveland also heads up BNSF’s partnership with Wabtec on the development and demonstration of the first linehaul battery-electric locomotive in California

The key to technology development success is people and always asking, “How can we do this better?” Cleveland says, adding that he is “pleased to work with the best that the industry has to offer on some of the biggest and most challenging problems facing rail today.”

Cleveland joined the railroad in 2010 as a mechanical management trainee. In 2015, he moved to the system locomotive team as the locomotive technology expert for the Natural Gas Pilot program. He was responsible for guiding the development of and piloting and evaluating BNSF’s natural gas-fueled locomotives. Among his other projects: air brake health effectiveness systems and waivers; locomotive emissions testing, reporting and validation; and rebuilt engine emissions kit development.

Cleveland also participates in the Mechanical Committee of the Locomotive Maintenance Officers Association. 

Jim Derwinski, CEO/Executive Director, Metra and Chairman, Commuter Rail Coalition (CRC)

Derwinski leads the nation’s fourth-busiest commuter railroad—with 242 stations, 11 routes and some 1,200 miles of track. Throughout the pandemic, he has worked with city and suburban leaders to keep Chicagoland moving, providing essential service to the region’s frontline workers, while navigating the exigencies of myriad contract service providers. Under his leadership, Metra has also brought together business and community leaders, and recently sponsored Chicago’s Safe Return To Work Summit.

A six-year U.S. Navy veteran, Derwinski began his railroading career with the Chicago & North Western in 1993. In 1997, he joined Metra as an electrician, rising steadily through the ranks to become Chief Mechanical Officer in 2013. In this role, he managed the work of 650 professionals, ensuring the safe operation of nearly 1,200 railcars and locomotives, and oversaw Metra’s railcar and locomotive rehabilitation programs, department contracts and the installation of PTC. The Metra Board unanimously elected him to his current post in 2017, where he is directing new transportation initiatives, including updating the aging railcar fleet.

Derwinski is founding Chairman of the CRC, which launched in 2019. He leads CRC’s Board of Directors, helping to steer and grow the advocacy organization, and representing its members—commuter rail agencies, operators and other interested parties—on Capitol Hill, before House and Senate Committees, and in the media.

Additionally, he is a member of the APTA Board; AAR Safety Operations and Management Committee; and TTCI Board. 

Jim Hansen, Chief Commercial Officer-Freight Systems, Herzog 

Throughout his 43-year railroading career, Hansen has played an integral role in promoting innovation and collaboration and serving as an advocate for railway contractors and suppliers. 

He got his start in Burlington Northern’s maintenance-of-way department. After more than 10 years of service, he moved on to hold sales and marketing positions of increasing executive responsibility at ESCO Equipment Service Co., Stanley Railroad Products, and RailWorks Corp., where for 30 years he was dedicated to understanding customer needs and championing the introduction of m/w technology, services and partnerships. Hansen joined Herzog in 2017, and now leads all marketing efforts for freight clients. 

For 25 years, Hansen has been President of the North American Maintenance Railway Club, now a top railroad networking organization with more than 600 contractor, supplier and railroad members. He is also Chairman of the Board for the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association. Under his leadership, the group has launched a sustainability task force and a “First Look” Webinar series, among other initiatives, and he is helping to shepherd the next generation of industry leaders into NRC’s committees and Board. Additionally, Hansen is Vice Chair of AAR’s Associate Advisory Board. 

Joan Hardy, Vice President Sales and Marketing, Grain and Fertilizer, Canadian Pacific 

Hardy is responsible for commercial customer relationships and product marketing for CP’s bulk business. She has taught her 25-member team to analyze the facts and think about commercial contracts in a different way, and introduced KPIs and metrics to help them understand specific customer issues and trends.

In collaboration with farmers through industry groups, shippers, ports and the grain supply chain, Hardy and CP are delivering record volumes for Canada’s agriculture sector. She and her team introduced CP’s 8500’ High Efficiency Product (HEP) model in 2018. By the end of 2021, more than 40% of the CP-served grain elevators in western Canada will use it, creating significant additional capacity.    

Hardy, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, spent 21 years at CN in Mechanical, Operations, Sales and Marketing, and Customer Service roles; and 12 years leading transportation activities for grain merchandiser and processor Richardson International. 

She is Chair of CP’s Gender & 2SLGBTQ+ Diversity Council, which spearheaded a Women’s Leadership Network; established a mentoring program with streams for women in operations and in non-operations roles; and connected CP with Pride at Work. 

In addition, Hardy is an active member of the United Way Winnipeg Board of Trustees, and recently completed a two-year term as Chair. 

Matthew McClaren, Chief Mechanical Officer-Car, CN

McClaren got his start in railroading as a NS Conductor. He moved on to CN, holding Conductor and Yard Supervisor positions, before taking on a management role, Assistant Transportation Manager. Over the past 20 years, McClaren has served as Superintendent Illinois, Superintendent Chicago/Iowa Zones, General Superintendent, and General Manager in Network Operations. He recently took on his current role in the Mechanical department, overseeing the inspection, maintenance, asset planning and safety for all railcars across the CN network. 

McClaren has led many initiatives at CN, including a successful plan to reduce overall cycle times on unit trains. This resulted in the team receiving a People’s Award of Excellence, one of CN’s highest achievements. He also played an integral role in the construction of Harrison Yard–Memphis, Tenn., in 2008, and helped implement a new computer-aided dispatch system for CN’s Eastern Region. He is most proud of leading a safety culture transformation in the Operations Center. Through consistent support from the Center’s leaders, employees focus on understanding the “why” behind what they do and controlling what they can. Reinforcing a safety-led culture that is empowered to live by safety over productivity is key. 

McClaren is known for investing in his team the most precious asset leaders have—time. 

Clark Ponthier, Senior Vice President-Supply Chain and Continuous Improvement, Union Pacific 

Ponthier is responsible for overall leadership on strategic sourcing, warehousing, planning, supplier quality, and fueling and wastewater treatment operations. 

Under his direction is UP’s Supplier Diversity program, which supports local communities. Its aims: developing relationships with qualified suppliers, offering them opportunities to compete for UP business, and helping them identify growth opportunities. In 2020, the team increased its diversity spend 29% by recruiting new vendors, expanding current diverse vendor portfolios, and auditing vendors’ diversity status. Not only is Ponthier’s team signing up for another 25% increase in spend in 2021, he has also built progressive KPIs around diverse bid inclusion, onboarding and mentoring. This critical diversity and inclusion work is in addition to Ponthier’s voluntary role as UP’s LGBT+ Employee Resource Group Executive Sponsor.

Among his other accomplishments: Ponthier and his environmental team completely revised how wastewater treatment is handled, leading to significant environmental improvements across the UP network; and in March 2020, during the pandemic, his supply team identified more than 6,500 N95 masks and several 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer and isopropyl alcohol, which they donated to Nebraska Medicine, the largest hospital network in the state. 

Ponthier serves on the Board of Directors for the United Way of the Midlands and as an officer on the Board of the Association for Supply Chain Management. 

Rafael Santana, President and CEO, Wabtec 

A native of Brazil, Santana has more than 25 years of commercial, product management and executive leadership experience. He oversaw Wabtec’s growth into a Fortune and S&P 500 company, and led the merger with GE Transportation, positioning Wabtec with a strong, diversified portfolio. 

Under Santana’s direction, Wabtec not only helped 70 customers meet the recent U.S. federally mandated deadline for PTC, but also is driving sustainability. The Pittsburgh, Pa.-based company—which traces its roots to inventor George Westinghouse, whose automatic air brake was introduced in the pages of Railway Age in the 19th century—is working with BNSF and the California Air Resources Board to test its FLXdrive Battery Locomotive, the industry’s first 100%, heavy-haul battery-powered unit to operate in revenue service. In addition, Santana is leading the company on additive technology, artificial intelligence and autonomous rail operations initiatives. 

Santana announced Wabtec’s establishment of a research institute in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University and Genesee & Wyoming in March. The Freight Rail Innovation Institute is slated to develop and deploy advanced rail propulsion, logistics and safety technologies. 

“Within the next nine years, we are committed to developing the technology to enable the expansion of freight rail utilization, accelerating the reduction of GHG emissions with battery- and hydrogen-powered locomotives, and enabling safer trains,” he said. 

Wabtec’s goal, Santana noted, is to “develop the next generation of zero-emission locomotives. Wabtec has a clear path to power new locomotives—and repower existing locomotives—with batteries, hydrogen internal combustion engines, and hydrogen fuel cells.” 

Mark Wallace, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, CSX 

Wallace is setting a new standard in rail marketing. Since being named CSX’s sales and marketing leader in 2018, he has transformed the department: recruiting professionals from outside the industry to broaden the company’s sales and marketing vision; creating a new strategy team to focus on analytics and data-driven marketing; incorporating the customer service team, which was renamed customer engagement, with a focus on collaboration and proactive outreach; providing sales and marketing with additional support and tools; equipping customers with improved transparency for shipment tracking; and creating a tighter alignment between the sales and marketing teams, emphasizing the importance of addressing customers’ challenges over quoting prices.   

Through these initiatives and more, sales and marketing is now centered on offering new supply chain solutions and converting freight from highway to rail. Employees are leveraging improved service and expanding value-added services, such as transloading and warehousing, to capture new opportunities and elevate CSX from a service provider to a proactive supply chain partner. 

Prior to joining CSX in 2017, Wallace was Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Chief of Staff at CP, and held a variety of senior management roles at CN. 

Wallace serves on the Board of Directors of Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla.

Rick Webb, Executive Chairman, Watco 

Webb is a logistics and transportation trailblazer. For 37 years, he has led a successful business that includes operating more than 40 short line railroads with additional integrated transportation services in the terminal and port, railcar mechanical, and third-party logistics spaces in North America and Australia. 

Building Watco from its humble Kansas roots to what it is today; valuing customers and fellow employees; committing to safety; and championing the industry are among the reasons Webb is an influential leader. 

Webb joined Watco in 1984, one year after his father, Dick, commenced operations. He cleaned boxcars at Watco’s early third-party switching locations, and by the time the company added its first short line in 1987, he was becoming known for his dedication to customers and for cultivating relationships with Class I’s. 

Over the years, he took on management and leadership roles in operations, purchasing, marketing, accounting and financial management. His strategic vision and knack for taking smart risks propelled him to CEO in 1998. In 2004, Kansas City Southern turned to the company to operate its Kansas City Terminal Railroad. The following year, KCS announced it would lease five branch lines to Watco. “Rick is a customer focused first, visionary leader,” said David Starling, former KCS President and CEO. “Watco has been a trusted partner of KCS for many years due to the confidence we’ve had in Rick and the organization he’s built.”

Watco went on to own or lease and operate a network of short lines interchanging with each of the seven Class I’s—ensuring dependable and far-reaching market connectivity, especially for rural businesses and communities.

Webb also pursued other rail-related lines of business. In 2004, Watco bought a minority interest in Houston’s Greens Port Industrial Park on the Houston Ship Channel and became full owner in 2010. Today, the 723-acre Greens Port Industrial Terminals, with seven deep water docks, nine barge docks and direct access to three Class I’s, can handle and distribute products and create new supply chains for customers. In 2008, Watco began serving new lumber, steel and bulk customers by acquiring warehouses and transloading facilities.  

Watco expanded internationally in 2012 to provide rail logistics services in western Australia and in 2017 as part of a joint venture with KCS and a third partner to build a terminal in Mexico. It launched a supply chain division in 2014, and opened a centralized training facility three years later.

Webb has earned respect not only due to his achievements, but also his passion for the industry. His 2009 congressional testimony, on behalf of ASLRRA, for instance, stressed the importance of a renewed investment in short lines, and helped lead to the Short Line Tax Credit. He was on the STB’s Railroad-Shipper Transportation Advisory Council and is an AAR Board member.

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