Sanborn Heading Back East

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

Cindy Sanborn, one of the first women to hold a senior-level executive role at a Class I railroad, will succeed the retiring Michael Wheeler as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Norfolk Southern, effective Sept. 1, 2020.

Sanborn, who was unceremoniously axed as EVP and COO at NS’s eastern competitor CSX by the late E. Hunter Harrison in a messy management purge in 2017 following 30 years of service there, resurfaced at Union Pacific as Regional Vice President Transportation-Western Region in February 2018. She was subsequently elevated to Vice President Network Planning and oversaw all activities in UP’s Northern Region. At CSX, prior to her role as EVP and COO Sanborn held various leadership positions during her 30-year tenure at CSX, including VP and Chief Transportation Officer, and Vice President Northern Region. She now heads back east.

“When we began the search for our next Chief Operating Officer, we looked for an experienced executive who could lead our operations and build on our successful implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading,” said Norfolk Southern Chairman, President and CEO Jim Squires. “We are proud to welcome Cindy Sanborn, one of the freight rail industry’s leading operations experts, to the Norfolk Southern team. I thank Mike [Wheeler] for the many contributions he made during his 35-year tenure at Norfolk Southern. We wish him all the best.”

Wheeler will retire effective Oct. 1. “It has been a privilege to be a part of Norfolk Southern, and I am proud of all that we have accomplished, especially over the past few years,” he said. “I am confident in the future success of Norfolk Southern and look forward to working closely with Cindy to ensure a seamless handoff of leadership responsibilities.” 

“Norfolk Southern is combining PSR with a superior service product,” said Sanborn, who earned an undergraduate degree from Emory University and an MBA from the University of Miami. “I look forward to working with the NS management team to build on the momentum that’s already well under way.”

“Having spent just six months under Hunter Harrison, Sanborn is not a PSR veteran like Jim Foote/Jamie Boychuk (CSX), Jim Vena (Union Pacific) or Sameh Fahmy (Kansas City Southern),” noted Credit Suisse analyst Allison Landry. “That said, she does have a reputation as a solid operating leader (with extensive experience in the East), and also might be able to impart knowledge from her 2+ years of experience at UP during its PSR implementation. At the very least, the hire adds some bench strength to NS’s operating team.”

Cindy Sanborn comes from a railroad family. Her father was the legendary Dick Sanborn (1936-1989). “Mr. Sanborn was only 52 when he died,” the Journal of Commerce wrote in a February 1989 obituary. “He had been chief executive officer of Conrail for only six weeks. He had spent a lifetime preparing to head up a major railroad, working his way up into top management positions at Seaboard Coast Line Industries Inc. and CSX Corp., and then going to Conrail [in March 1988] when it appeared that he was no longer in line for the top spot at CSX. He patiently waited nearly a year at Conrail for the legendary L. Stanley Crane to retire, and he could pick up the reins. Few railroad men were better prepared to operate a major transportation company. Few were better suited to lead. Mr. Sanborn was intelligent, knowledgeable, patient and considerate of others and especially those he managed.”

“I knew Cindy when she was just cubbing in Rocky Mount, N.C., as an assistant trainmaster,” recalls Doug Riddell, the retired Amtrak locomotive engineer and company photographer who hired on initially as a switchman at the Seaboard Coast Line in 1977. “She is a wonderful railroader. She came out on her nights off as a new assistant trainmaster and got qualified running Amtrak’s Silver Meteor between Rocky Mount and Florence, and went through engineer training at Cumberland. She’s the real thing. Her mom met her dad while working in passenger services, and she’s just as proud of her mom’s role as her dad’s. She’s amazed at how few people remember her dad, and once told told me that a lot of people don’t even make the connection.”

“Cindy is very bright,” commented one industry observer. “She has a lot of her dad’s genes.”

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