2019 CEOs Who "Get It"

2019 CEOs Who Get it
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John E. Fenton

President and CEO
Patriot Rail Co. LLC
Jacksonville, FL


  • MetroLink was the first railroad in the United States to receive approval by the Federal Railroad Administration for its Positive Train Control implementation plan.
  • Developed the first annual Safety Management System strategic safety approach at MetroLink.
  • Developed a beneficial partnership with the University of Southern California to establish the first industry-university partnership to standardize a rail system safety certification course.
  • Pioneered the installation of on-board, inward-facing cameras to enhance operational safety in locomotive cabs.

Patriot Rail operates 12 short-line railroads across the United States, as well as multiple rail services locations. Its Ports division (Portus and Seaonus) operates seven terminals along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and an inland cold storage facility. The company employs 850 workers.

Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.” What experiences or lessons brought you to where you are today?

One of the saddest days I can remember was when I saw the news come across about the Chatsworth incident – my heart sank. Being a professional railroader, everyone remembers where they were the day this happened. Similar to Sept. 11, 2001 – you don’t forget where you were and what you were doing. It was after that incident that I received the call to take over MetroLink operations to help make this catastrophic event into a positive and safe operation. Stepping in at that moment was simultaneously the worst and best experience of my life.

My career has consisted of freight rail, passenger rail and waste transportation as a turnaround specialist for the past 30 years. I always get superstitious when I talk about safety. I’m just that way. Many companies do a tremendous job around safety. They all have great numbers, but to take it to the next level requires focus on building a positive safety culture, which includes a quality safety system and strong safety leadership.

A leader has to think beyond the clutter and the noise, and focus on the people – this is how you build your safety performance. If you are managing safety well, the rest of the business will follow suit. Safety is a constant learning environment – you can never anticipate everything, but when you have a safety culture of alignment, standardized safety fundamentals and the engagement of the employees to partner with, now you have the basis of a successful safety program.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

Safety is a foundational value and our ultimate benchmark. In our business, safe people and safe operations are mission critical. Whether your job is in transportation, mechanical, engineering, administration or management, our employees pledge to safety excellence in every task they do. It is the only way to achieve our goal of zero safety incidents and casualties.

Safety is also a cornerstone in our business plan. It provides a huge competitive advantage in today’s marketplace and is an increasingly important factor when customers look for a transportation and logistics partner. Most quality customers will pay a premium to do business with a safe, cordial and efficient company.


What is the biggest obstacle to safety at your organization, and how do you work to overcome it?

Our biggest obstacles are the unknowns, those who take risks by disregarding the process. We call that the “superman syndrome,” and normalization of deviance. If there are failures in either the environment or behaviors, then there are systems of management process deficiencies. Discipline to drive quality process management has to lead safety. As leaders, we cast a long shadow on our organization and must lead by example. Our employees watch what we do and they will do the same. By demonstrating to the employees how important they are, positive reinforcement, educate on the issue, be proactive instead of reactive and no shortcuts is how we work to overcome the obstacles. Employee partnering is critical to this process. Their involvement makes them feel valued, included and empowered.


How do you instill a sense of safety in employees on an ongoing basis?

Safety is a personal responsibility. We are professionals and our activities must reflect that professionalism. I expect everyone to demonstrate safety advocacy every day, regardless of their role in the company – doing so is a condition of their employment. This means everyone must hold themselves and their teammates accountable for safe conduct by following the rules and procedures, and to take pride in every task.

This responsibility also means you speak up if you do not understand how to perform a task safely, or if you think something is amiss or operational safety may be at risk. As CEO, I tell all my employees, “If a task cannot be done safely, I do not want you to do it until it can be done safely.” We need them on the job, and so does their family.


What are the leading indicators that show you how safe your organization is, and where do you see room for improvement?

Safety success in the past doesn’t guarantee safety success in the future. There must be a leadership obsession with continuous improvement or risk stagnation. Focus on execution, pay attention to detail and keep it simple. Never trust the good news, and never dismiss an accident or injury because it was minor.

Having organizational accountability where people hold themselves accountable for the success of the organization’s mission and peer-to-peer accountability where people hold themselves accountable to deliver obligations to their peers is key. Environments that have a solid accountability system in place and have a high level of personal accountability among its employees will also have a culture of empowerment where those individuals will feel they have some (or complete) control over their destiny.

By allowing our employees to be empowered, we are engaging our workforce in what they are doing and how they can do it safely. However, merely empowering a person without any responsibility or accountability is quite useless, not to mention what a catastrophe it can be to the manager. Achieving a high level of empowerment through accountability is the cornerstone to an innovating, learning and adapting organization. It is also the foundation for high-performing teams to feel in control, motivated and inspired to greatness.


What role does off-the-job safety play in your organization’s overall safety program?

Our focus is always on safety, whether on or off the job. It is impossible to separate the overall health and safety of our employees because both are critical elements as we instill the importance of good safety habits. We encourage our employees to share with their families at home the safety processes and risk mitigation techniques they have learned at work in order to reinforce the priority of safety.


What types of off-the-job safety and health programs does your organization offer to employees?

Every month we roll out a safety topic for our employees to use at home with their families when they are away from work, such as holiday weekends – make sure they have a fire extinguisher when using different cooking sources or highway safety if traveling. When we are dealing with adverse weather conditions, we want them to remember to stay hydrated and watch for heat stress or driving in fog, snow or ice. Then there are reminders of everyday items such as ladder safety, being mindful when children go back to school, or poisoning and insect bite prevention. When I send letters home to the families, I always address safety as our company value so the family members can see we care not only for the employee, but their entire family as well. To me, there can never be enough continuous messaging when it comes to safety.

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