James R. Young was Union Pacific Corp.'s top executive in a decade that saw the resurgence of the Omaha-based railroad and the U.S. rail industry.
Young, 61, died Saturday, almost two years after he took a leave from his executive position for treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Despite his health condition, Young continued supplying leadership to the company and served as non-executive chairman until he retired in January, seven years after being named CEO.
If not for the health problems, Young likely would have been the company's top executive until age 65 and then served as chairman for some years after that, following the railroad's typical executive course.
In a video made for his induction in 2013 to the Omaha Business Hall of Fame, Young said: “I'm a lucky man. I don't know any other way to say it.”
Jack Koraleski, Union Pacific president and CEO, said Young was an icon in the railroad industry and a “great friend.”
“Jim's vision and leadership took Union Pacific to unparalleled heights, and his civic contributions made positive impacts on many communities across Nebraska and the entire Union Pacific system,” Koraleski said in a statement.
“Most importantly, he was a dedicated and loving husband, father and grandfather. He will be greatly missed.”
After a series of promotions, Young was named executive vice president and chief financial officer in 1999, president and chief operating officer in 2004, a member of the board of directors in 2005 and CEO on Jan. 1, 2006.
Young worked on U.P.'s acquisitions of Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads and, later, the decision to build a new headquarters in Omaha. For a time, the railroad considered moving its headquarters elsewhere, but Omaha remained its home.
He became chairman in 2007, succeeding Dick Davidson. Since Young became CEO, the 45,000-employee railroad's profits have quadrupled, its revenue is up 60 percent and its stock price is up six times, not counting dividends.
The increase wasn't always smooth. The railroad struggled in 1998 and 2004, he once said. With the recession in full swing in 2009, Young made job cuts and reduced spending in line with the reduced demand for shipping.
“My gut says right now we're at the bottom,” he said in April 2009. “But any recovery will be slow. We're really looking at next year at best.”
The viewpoint was accurate. Since then the railroad's finances have taken off, along with its spending on improvements, although additional hiring has been conservative.
“We've rewarded our shareholders for sticking with us,” Young said. Because of increased spending on tracks and other facilities, “our infrastructure in this business has never been better.”
Young was born in Omaha and graduated from South High School, where he played football at the school's field known as “the Hole.” Years later, he helped raise money to create the school's new stadium.
“I started working when I was very young,” he said last year. “Being the oldest of six, you learn pretty quick you'd better get out and work if you want anything. I was hauling newspapers, I think, when I was probably 9, 10 years old.
“I was pretty young, but I loved it. I loved the $2.27 you made a week.”
While working full time, he earned a business degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and married Shirley Samples, his college sweetheart. They have three adult children and two grandchildren.
Out of money and in his mid-20s by the time he graduated from UNO in 1978, he resolved to take the first job offered. Union Pacific called on a Friday and he agreed to start work the following Monday morning.
A few weeks into his management training, the young accounting and computer science graduate left Council Bluffs at 4 a.m. in the lead locomotive of a freight train bound for North Platte, then turned around and rode another train back.
Later he said that regularly going out onto the railroad to talk with crew members and others, even as CEO, gave him a better understanding of the railroad, including how to explain its problems to securities analysts at high-powered investment meetings in New York.
In the Hall of Fame video, Young said Union Pacific's culture changed during his tenure.
“I think cultures in most companies have to change,” he said. “They have to reflect what's going on with people that are coming into the workforce. We went from a company that, I would say, was somewhat internally focused to one that today, it's about safety, customer service. We are providing the best customer service we have ever had in the history of our company.”
He said he emphasized teamwork in business.
“Leave your ego at the door,” he said. “The success of this company ... is a function of how we work together.”
Trust and honesty also are vital, he said.
“It takes time to build trust with people, and that's what I would encourage you to do. It doesn't take very long to lose it.”
Last year he was named Railroader of the Year by Railway Age magazine and in 2012 was named Progressive Railroading's Railroad Innovator.
David Yeager, president and CEO of The Hub Group Inc. freight company, told Progressive Railroading that Young made Union Pacific nimble — an “incredible accomplishment” for a company its size and in a mature industry like railroading.
From 2005 to 2009, Union Pacific spent $14.3 billion in improvements and has set annual records since then, expanding capacity and adding technology to remove bottlenecks, congested yards and car-switching mistakes.
Last year Young spoke at a gathering of Union Pacific staff members to mark the railroad's 150th anniversary.
“We've got to respect the people, the culture, the drive, the energy that made our company successful for 150 years,” he said. “I want to thank all of you for what you've helped us accomplish. Today we're the best railroad in America.”
Young is past chairman of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Joslyn Art Museum's board of governors and was a board member of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University. He also served as a Presbyterian Church elder and coached youth football, basketball and baseball.
He received the Beacon of Ethics award last year from the Omaha Business Ethics Alliance, which said his emphasis on respecting employees and engaging customers was “a role model for our entire business and civic community.”
Young also had been chairman of the Association of American Railroads, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the Salvation Army Tree of Lights campaign and a director of the FXE Railroad in Mexico.
The family asked that any contributions be made to pancreatic research in care of Dr. Jean Grem at the University of Nebraska Medical Center or to a charity of choice.