Norfolk Southern names Cindy Sanborn chief operating officer (updated)

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Cindy Sanborn

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk Southern today named Union Pacific executive Cindy Sanborn as its chief operating officer, a position she also held at CSX Transportation.

Sanborn was one of the first women in the industry to hold an executive-level operations position. She spent 30 years at CSX, where she rose through the ranks and ultimately became its top operating official. She was named the railroad’s chief transportation officer in 2009.

CSX on Oct. 25, 2017 announced that its top operations, marketing, and legal officers would depart. Such a one-day sweep of top executives was unprecedented, rail historians say. E. Hunter Harrison, then CSX’s chief executive, brought in former Canadian National colleague Jim Foote to head both operations and the sales and marketing teams.

Sanborn, who comes from a railroad family, in January 2018 was named regional vice president of transportation for UP’s Western Region. She moved into the new role the following month. She most recently served as vice president, network planning at UP and previously oversaw all activities in the railroad’s Northern Region.

“Norfolk Southern is combining Precision Scheduled Railroading with a superior service product to create long term value for shareholders,” Sanborn said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the NS management team to build on the momentum that’s already well under way.”

She will begin leading operations at NS on Sept. 1.

“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. We are proud to welcome Cindy Sanborn, one of the freight rail industry’s leading operations experts, to the Norfolk Southern team as we work together to lower our operating ratio and deliver shareholder value,” CEO Jim Squires said in a statement.

Sanborn replaces Mike Wheeler, who will retire Oct. 1 after a 35-year career at NS.

“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 last few years,” Wheeler said in a statement. “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.”

Independent analyst Anthony B. Hatch Sanborn’s hiring “sort of wild,” noting it is unusual for a top executive to move among three big railroads.

Yet four of the seven Class I systems – CN, CSX, NS, and UP – now have chief operating officers who came from other railroads.

“The old kind of boundaries have been broken down,” Hatch says. “In a tradition-bound industry, this is or was the most tradition-bound railroad – for good and bad.”

Sanborn, who is well respected in the industry, knows NS better than a typical outsider because of her career at eastern rival CSX, Hatch says.

NS has long promoted from within, but Squires has been increasingly looking outside the company for executives. It’s the first time the company has hired an outsider as its chief operating officer.

Sanborn’s appointment to a C-suite position at NS is the second executive hired from outside the railroad in the past year. Chief Financial Officer Mark George joined NS last year from United Technologies Corp.

Mike Farrell, who has experience at Canadian Pacific, Canadian National, and Union Pacific, was named senior vice president of operations in 2018 after a stint working for NS as a consultant. And Vanessa Allen Sutherland, who joined NS in 2018, was named executive vice president and chief legal officer on April 1.

— Updated at 1:10 p.m. with reaction, additional details.

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