It was great to see old friends and make new ones at this week’s League of Railway Industry Women’s Annual Conference in Birmingham, Ala. The location couldn’t be more fitting for a group of women who mainly work for railroads and their suppliers because the city was founded in 1871 at the junction of two railroads.
“Birmingham planned a city with heavy industry at its center, literally,” as local rail expert John Stewart told the group. The city benefited from an abundance of raw materials needed for producing iron and steel.
The group heard presentations from several prominent Birmingham-area companies, including Birmingham Rail & Locomotive, Vulcan Materials, and Boatright Companies, and toured Wheelworx, a full-service wheelshop. Vulcan Materials is a major producer of construction aggregates and other construction materials. It shipped 142 million tons of aggregates last year.
Jeff Harris, national accounts manager for Birmingham Rail & Locomotive, spoke about his company’s new customer service and branding efforts, which include a new logo and the integration of Southeastern Frog & Switch and Houston Rail & Locomotive into what he termed the new BR&L. “Those names are going away and everyone will be BR&L,” he said.
BR&L was founded in 1899 and its main rail product is track spikes, but the company is branching out to new and relay rail sales. And if you want to purchase something, don’t expect to leave a message when you call this company. “We don’t believe in voice mail,” Harris said. “If you want to buy something, you will reach a salesperson whenever you call.”
Shane Boatright, founder, president and CEO of Boatright Companies, told the LRIW audience about how he grew the company from running one high-rail truck spraying weeds along railroad rights of way to a diversified rail business providing vegetation management, equipment sales, tie production and railcar repair services with 350 employees and offices in four states. His life-long dream came true in 2007 when he was able to buy a railroad–a short line in Georgia called the St. Marys Railroad. The short line, which has operated since 1865, mainly serves companies transporting paper products and items needed for the Kings Bay naval base, including ballistic missiles.
“Everything I do is tied to the railroad,” he said. “And moving ballistic missiles for the Department of Defense is kind of cool.”
And Boatright isn’t done yet. His company is building a $60 million tie plant in Alabama and is on the lookout for strategic acquisitions as well. He says he reviews about five potential deals every month and predicts that there will be more consolidation in the railroad industry.
Boatright insists that he never had a plan to build such a large company, but credits his success to several things, including working hard, hiring the right people and building relationships with his customers and his customer’s customers.
And building relationships is exactly what we did at the LRIW conference. I look forward to our next opportunity to meet face to face in September when the LRIW holds its annual luncheon during the Railway Supply Institute conference in Chicago.
—By Kathy Keeney
Kathy Keeney is Publisher of the Rail Group at UBM Global Trade. The granddaughter of a railroader, she has been writing about railroads for more than 25 years. She is a past president of The League of Railway Industry Women and served on the board of directors for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.