INSIGHTS & IDEAS >> From our President: James Allen, II / Operational Excellence / Delivering Value / Zero Today

Smart, Steady and Safe – How We’re Taking the Rail Industry into the Future


I’ve been in the rail industry for 27 years, starting off as a repairman-welder in a railcar maintenance shop in California, where I’m from. I gradually moved up the ladder– inspector/estimator, then supervisor – it was where I had the opportunity to learn about railcars end to end and inside and out. It was in Colton, CA where I began the process of honing my leadership skills and I’ve focused on refining them ever since.

Collaborative approach to leadership

When I became a manager, I wanted to introduce my own way of leading to the team. I introduced a more collaborative approach to the historical command and control model that I had experienced in the past. My goal was to rally my team around a common purpose, leveraging their experience and input to make effective decisions. I encouraged active engagement with our team to ensure they were empowered to share their own ideas. I wanted them to take ownership of continuous improvement and have a say in how we can improve operations. I really valued their perspective. They trusted me to create a vision and a plan, and I trusted and relied on them to execute. To this day, this is my style of leadership at CF Rail Services. Everything starts with our employees – we invest in our people, continuous education, training, and developing to become best in class. We challenge each other without compromising our values.  

Alignment with values

When I received the call from Jeff Walsh from Sasser Family Holdings, he talked about forward vision and strategy for CF Rail Services and how I could leverage my operations expertise in order to lead the way. I really liked his passion and the common vision we shared – family, data-based decision making, and a focus on sustainable profitability. Sasser plays the long game. They are in businesses that provide consistent earnings stability. They invest in their people and believe they are their most valuable asset. This resonated with me! I’ve always been a believer that profit is the result of good decisions and actions.

Top priorities – our people and operating model

My first order of business when I became president at CF Rail Services was to focus on employee development. The industry requires adherence to federal and industry-specific regulations and a broad understanding of safety procedures. So it was critical for me to make sure we had the most qualified people in each of our repair shops and our leadership team. The second priority was designing a new operating model, which is supported by a pioneering IT platform. Our Keystone Operating Model is designed to make CFRS more efficient at every level of our operations. From the minute a railcar enters our shop, we track every movement of the asset, manage work orders, and ensure we are achieving high-quality repairs with industry-leading throughput. It’s really turned our operations into an information-rich environment driven by data, which improves our internal processes and also our customer service experience. These two initiatives and investments – developing our people and our Keystone Operating Model – have enabled us to become a customer-centric business that strives to exceed expectations. Our goal is to challenge the status quo while maintaining our focus on quality, safety, and the environment.  

The Future

This industry has moved along slowly, but I feel this is changing and that it’s going to pick up some momentum. My generation was the first to use technology to streamline processes, centralize information, and capture data. The next generation will take it to the next level and make it even better, challenging the status quo even more. I am excited to see how the industry will evolve and I’m proud of how we embrace change and progress at CF Rail Services.

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