U.S., Amtrak: What is required from Stephen Gardner’s leadership to move the company forward in these critical times

W. Graham Claytor, Jr., President and CEO of Amtrak from 1982 to 1993, considered by many to have been Amtrak’s most impressive and accomplished leader as he stabilized the company. Shown above in 1988 in front of Washington Union Station which also served as Amtrak’s corporate headquarters, Mr. Claytor had also previously served as President of the Southern Railway from 1967 to 1977, where he was known as “an operations man” as well as an “employee’s president;” he had originally risen through the railroad corporate ranks as an attorney. During his Amtrak tenure he was known for riding his trains and eating in the dining car. After his retirement from Amtrak, the concourse in Washington Union Station was named in his honor. Internet photo.

By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; July 22, 2022

Wikipedia photo

How do you define Leadership? Let’s take a crack at it before we get to Amtrak’s current leaders. To this writer, a leader in business is one who knows why the company or corporation exists, and represents it directly to the public with pride and conviction so that its customers can relate to it and want to become part of it.

Simple enough?

Well, let’s look at some successful business leaders.

Number one on my list is Lee Iacocca. Need I say more? Those of us who were around remember how he introduced the Mustang at Ford in the 1960s, but it was his rescue of Chrysler in the 1980s that showed how a leader can take charge and get great public response. He was all over television with his commercials, saying, “If you can find a better car, buy it.” Yes, personality association with the product and the public.

Photo provided by Russ Jackson.
John Legere on his personal Segway. Photo provided by Russ Jackson.

John Legere. T-Mobile was a struggling company when they “went in a new direction” in 2012. Legere became T-Mobile, and it was his non-traditional approach that rattled the industry. He put himself out in front with his customers and changed the culture of the company. From his television appearances to his persona, he was the image not of the old shirt-and-tie executive behind the scenes, but of the magenta color clothes and long hair who became brutally authentic.

He rode around T-Mobile’s Seattle area headquarters on a Segway. Everyone knew him, and to the world he became the guy who mocked his rival companies as “dumb and dumber.” An hour interview with Jim “Mad Money” Cramer on CNBC was entertaining as well as informative. The public responded and soon T-Mobile was one of the big boys.   The book? Every Sunday, Legere was on television doing a cooking show in his magenta clothes, and the recipes reflected his enthusiasm.

Photo provided by Russ Jackson.
Ray Lindstrom with one of his many products. Photo provided by Russ Jackson.

Ray Lindstrom. You’ve never heard of Ray? Well, read his book sometime and you’ll know a lot about someone who was one of the great behind the scene leaders. Ray started as a top-rated disc jockey on Tucson’s KTKT radio station and became an advertising genius in Arizona by bringing a small Ford dealer, Tex Earnhart, onto television to pitch his cars, went on to be the first to air “infomercials” nationally, and put shops in casinos that sold watches.

He was “Ray, the watchman.” He’s never stopped thinking of new things to do, and still entertains his friends with such things as a deck of cards with their pictures. On his own picture he is the Joker. That’s Ray. Read his book, it contains 21 “Lindstrom’s Laws” to success, from “You can learn how to do anything,” to “Tell the world about your success,” to “Will something be successful? You never know until you do it. So what are you waiting for?”

Amtrak West’s Gil Mallery. Photo provided by Russ Jackson.

Now, we come to Amtrak.

While it is generally recognized that W. Graham Claytor was the “best” Amtrak President/CEO, and he deserves that accolade for bringing an era of growth to the company in the 1980s, there have been others who were true leaders who brought success, and Tom Downs is one. Downs split the company into three functioning subsidiaries and told them to go for it. Gil Mallery, was President of Amtrak West and his team that included the brilliant customer-oriented Brian Rosenwald developed the Pacific Parlour Car for the Coast Starlight that brought new customers who wanted the travel experience to be more than just “transportation.”

But, it was Amtrak’s internal bureaucracy-oriented jealousy in Washington that brought an end to that kind of leadership, and the end of those cars, and the end of that kind of thinking.

David Gunn. Photo provided by Russ Jackson.

David Gunn is recognized as a true leader, because he knew his philosophy as President from 2002-2005 was, in his words, “no form of passenger transportation in the U.S. is self-sufficient” clashed with Congress and its desire again to drop government subsidies. Gunn supported the separation of the long distance trains from the Northeast Corridor, and challenged the concept of “business as usual.” He was out there riding the trains, got to know the employees, and wasn’t afraid to talk to the public via interviews.

Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Stephen Gardner. Amtrak publicity photo.

Finally, we come to Amtrak today. Yes, there is leadership (small letters) at Amtrak and it’s all in Washington, D.C. Have you looked at a list of the current office-holders up there?  There are twelve (12) Senior officers as of the last musical chairs shuffle that put Stephen Gardner where he always wanted to be, at the top. Look at the titles of those people. Are any of them directly concerned with the customer? Have you seen any of them “out there” on the trains? Have any of them even been on a train outside the NEC?

As former airline executives do they come down to our level to see what is out there in their company? Stephen Gardner has been the “effective CEO” for at least 10 years. Has he learned anything? Do any of them have any real concerns for the success of the company other than to rake in as much government money as possible to be spent, where?

They got 60 BILLION dollars out of the government, which looks great until you see what their plans are – or aren’t. ConnectUS is a boondoggle that will result in studies, studies, studies, and because few states will want to accept the eventual financial responsibility, not many will bite on their plan.

The long distance trains, the really productive part of their business, were ignored and devalued to the point where they almost disappeared (and, could yet), and from a leadership standpoint they don’t exist. Can you identify any of these “leaders”? The only one whose job description even includes the long distance trains came from engineering, not customer service. Other than promotional bio shots, there are not even pictures of any of them “out among them.”

How about a television ad showing an Amtrak CEO saying “Welcome to Amtrak. Let me show you what you’ll find when you ride.” To quote a prominent Amtrak critic, “Can somebody please send this suffering railroad a competent railroad official to run the trains?”

LEADERHIP, that’s what it is.

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