I was a young Army officer in the days following the first Gulf War. As the Army began to decrease in size, interesting opportunities began to appear. One was that my particular specialty, Aeromedical Evacuation Officer, was over strength. The Army offered incentives to leave early. Big money for a young guy. It was a very good deal for me, especially as I was confident I would find a job quickly.
So, I took three months of terminal leave and headed for Albertville, Alabama. My in-laws’ house would serve as a home base as I traveled all over the southeast interviewing for jobs in various health care organizations.
I had a degree from Auburn in Health Services Administration and had spent ten years in the Army Medical Service Corps. I figured that was the path on which I would continue.
On the weekends I would stay in Albertville with my family. We started attending a small church and that December my wife and I went to a Sunday school Christmas party. While I was there, a guy came up to me and started asking about me, my background, my plans.
When I explained my situation, he said, “You ought to check into my company. They might have something for you.” In my mind, I thought, “Yeah, right. What could there possibly be for me to do in this town?”
A few minutes later I was talking to another guy who I knew worked at the same company. I mentioned my previous conversation. He said, “You ought to listen to that guy He owns the company.”
The next week I went for an interview. He asked, “Do you know anything about Personnel Management (what we now call Human Resources). I replied, “I know everything about Personnel Management. I have a master's degree in it.” He said, “That’s good.”
“Do you know anything about Safety?” I replied “I know everything about Safety. I’m a graduate of the Army Aviation Safety Officers’ Course!” He said, “That’s good.”
“Do you know anything about Quality? I replied, “I know EVERYTHING about Quality.” He said, “That’s good.”
Then he hired me!
The truth is, I just had a tiny bit of knowledge in each of those areas and much to learn. In fact, all I knew about quality was that I had just read a book about W. Edwards Deming, and it was fresh in my mind. In every other area, I was a novice with almost no practical experience.
But that guy took a chance on me!
That guy was Billy Ainsworth and the company was Steel Processing Services. My first day of work was in February 1993. In June of that same year, the company became Progress Rail.
In the intervening years, I was honored to lead teams in safety, environmental compliance, quality and continuous improvement, human resources, payroll, and others.
I wrote the first company newsletters and put together sales presentations on my Apple Powerbook 170 (Google it) when very few had ever heard of (much less used) Powerpoint or desktop publishing programs. The slides were printed on acetate and placed on an overhead projector. There was no such thing as a practical digital camera or projector back then.
I did safety training outside in the hot summer, in states all across the south. I used a portable TV set with a built-in VCR sitting on the trunk of a beat-up baby blue Ford Taurus. To power it, I often stretched an extension cord across a scrapyard. In those days our incident rates were quite high until we started learning about things like prevention, behavior-based safety, and leading metrics.
I even worked on IT teams when we were in our big growth phase starting in the early 90s. I helped install and administer our first Lucent digital phone switch and something brand new called voice mail. I led the company’s Y2K readiness initiative (was that really over 20 years ago?). I also worked on the team that installed our first Baan ERP package.
In many cases, I started functions from scratch and assembled an expert team around them. I was able to overcome my lack of knowledge and experience by studying and surrounding myself with people who were truly experts in those areas. I learned so much from them. I hope they learned a little from me.
The early years were a heady time, with dozens of acquisitions and rapid expansion. When I began, I was able to visit every facility multiple times a year. Now, there are many facilities I’ve never visited, and never will, but I’ve been privileged to work with leaders from most of them.
There have been ownership changes, and a couple of name changes. We saw phenomenal growth from a small company, mostly in the southeast US, to the largest integrated supplier of railroad-related products and services in the world. We’ve been a subsidiary of Caterpillar since 2006.
For almost ten years now my dream job at Progress Rail has been coaching and teaching leaders all over the world about Servant Leadership. I hope that those leaders have gained some value from the efforts of my little team as we’ve sought to inspire people with a simple message that seems counterintuitive:
The best leaders are servants first.
With all of the things I’ve done and the “stuff” I’ve experienced over the years (good and bad), my greatest joy has been being allowed to invest in the lives of others. Being allowed to serve them. Seeing leaders grow and lives change as a result. I’ve also loved being able to use this platform to encourage employees to engage in vital community service, both in this new hometown I’ve grown to love and in many places around the world.
I love this company and its people. This makes my decision even harder.
I will retire from Progress Rail at the end of April.
My decision was not made lightly and, I will admit, there is some fear and trembling in it. 27 years with one company is longer than some of my colleagues have been alive! I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. Many have moved to other places, many retired and some of my dear friends have passed on. I’ve made deep and lasting friendships and many memories that I’ll always hold in my heart.
I know that this is the right timing for me and for my family - but I will surely miss you. You have blessed me. May God bless each of you.
I have one request. If I’ve done anything to inspire you to serve others, don’t just let it go. Act on it! I’ve often said:
"Inspiration without action is an insult to those who inspired you."
If you truly want to be a leader, take action, and serve first. Take a chance on people. When is the best time to take action? It’s now. Seize the day! Don’t worry if you don’t get it perfect at first. Jump in.