Hyatt Lecture: From co-op to CEO, Wick Moorman shares lessons from a life in railroading

Charles “Wick” Moorman talked about railroads, his experiences at Georgia Tech, and some of the things he learned as he rose to leadership of one of the nation’s five large railroad companies during the Hyatt Distinguished Alumni Leadership Lecture March 9.

Moorman, who earned his bachelor’s in civil engineering in 1975, retired as chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern at the end of 2015. It was the end of a career that started when he was a Georgia Tech co-op student at one of the company’s predecessors, Southern Railway.


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Well, maybe it started even before that.

“I was a kid who loved trains,” Moorman told the audience of students, alumni, faculty, and some of his former Norfolk Southern colleagues. “Now, there are kids who love trains, but I was one of the kids who didn’t grow out of it.

“That’s unusual, but it’s turned out to be a great blessing for me.”

In a speech peppered with light moments, Moorman said railroads these days are almost invisible to our society — “You kind of think of us as the people who block crossings, right? We’re the people who make noise and block crossings.” — but he said they have an enormous impact on our every day lives.

  • “If you bought anything recently in a big box store that was made in Asia, the odds are very good it got here in a container on a train.”
  • “If you’ve been in an automobile today, there’s a 70 percent chance that automobile moved from either a port or an assembly plant to the local distributorship [by train].”
  • “If you flipped a switch on the wall today and the lights came on, the odds are really good that at least some of those electrons came to you courtesy of Plant Scherer, down above Macon, which burns coal from Wyoming that Norfolk Southern brings in from Memphis.”
  • “So, if the railroad shuts down, within three days, there are significant parts of the economy shut down. Not known widely, right?”

Moorman said the railroad industry experienced a renaissance after the recession eased in the early 2000s, and now, the system’s infrastructure is in the best shape it’s been in since World War II.

“It is, by and large, in superb condition. People tend to think that it’s probably not, because a lot of people judge a railroad by bridge over a highway,” Moorman said. “Let me just be frank: We don’t paint bridges unless we have to. But the track on top of it is really good.”

Lessons in leadership

Moorman said his rise through the ranks at Southern Railway and then Norfolk Southern taught him some “undesirable management traits,” initially, including how to micromanage his people.

It was only after what he called an early mid-life crisis and earning a Harvard MBA that things changed.

“I went into an area where I really did not know anything other than the top level,” Moorman said. “Two great lessons came out of it: First and foremost, you can’t micromanage people if you don’t know what it is they’re supposed to do. I found it was so much more fun, anyway, to manage at 30,000 feet. Since then people have been trying to tug me down rather than get me out of their hair.

“But I was totally reliant on the advice and expertise of people working with me. So, second thing, I needed to find out really quickly who was good and who I could trust. That’s a really important characteristic.”

Moorman also learned he needed help, he said.

“I had a wonderful boss, and he showed me the power of mentorship, and what a good mentor can do for someone.”

Charles "Wick" Moorman talks with a student after the Hyatt Distinguished Alumni Leadership Lecture. Moorman talked about the lessons he learned as a 40-year employee, and eventual leader, of Norfolk Southern. (Photo: Zonglin "Jack" Li)
Charles "Wick" Moorman talks with a student after the Hyatt Distinguished Alumni Leadership Lecture. Moorman talked about the lessons he learned as a 40-year employee, and eventual leader, of Norfolk Southern. (Photo: Zonglin "Jack" Li)

Value of Georgia Tech

Moorman said much of his good fortune throughout his career was teed up by his civil engineering studies at Georgia Tech — even though “I am one of those slackers who never did a day’s worth of engineering after they graduated.”

“This is to some extent a cliché,” Moorman said. “What Georgia Tech did is it taught me how to think. To think analytically. To ask questions. To find data. To try and make judgments based on data, rather than just purely emotion. You always have emotion when you make decisions. That’s part of the deal. But the more facts and the more data you can gather, the better your decision is going to be.”

Moorman said he had a postcard on his desk for many years that read, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle,” a quote from a George Orwell essay published in 1946. He said it often reminded him of his education at Tech.

“Georgia Tech, I think more than any other place, taught me how to try, at least, to always look in front of my nose and see what was going on.”

The Hyatt Distinguished Alumni Leadership Speaker Series taps the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering's broad alumni base to bring a distinguished leader to campus each fall and spring who can share wisdom and insight with the School's students and the wider Georgia Tech community. It is made possible by the generous support of Kenneth Hyatt, B.S. 1962, MSIM 1966.