Norfolk Southern’s earnings offer railroad chance to defend its strategy ahead of control vote

Norfolk Southern’s first-quarter earnings report Wednesday gave the railroad the opportunity to publicly defend CEO Alan Shaw’s strategy again before investors decide on May 9 whether to back him. Since the railroad already preannounced its disappointing results earlier this month when it disclosed a $600 million settlement over the disastrous February 2023 Ohio derailment there were few surprises in Wednesday’s numbers.

Norfolk Southern confirmed the $53 million, or 23 cents per share, that it earned in the first quarter. Without the settlement and some other one-time costs, the railroad said it would have made $2.39 per share while Wall Street was predicting earnings of $2.60 per share. The Atlanta-based railroad’s profit dropped from $466 million, or $2.04 per share, a year ago even though the railroad delivered 4% more shipments during the quarter.

“Our strategy is about balancing service, productivity and growth with safety at its core,” Shaw said, and he promised to close the profit margin gap with other major railroads over the next couple of years though several analysts have expressed doubts about whether Norfolk Southern will be able to do that as all the other railroads keep improving.

The railroad and Ancora Holdings disagree over whether Shaw ’s strategy of keeping more workers on hand during a downturn to be ready to handle the eventual rebound is the best way to run Norfolk Southern and whether he is the best man to lead the railroad.

Ancora’s CEO candidate, Jim Barber, was formerly UPS’ chief operating officer and said keeping more workers on hand during slower times is wasteful.

“This concept of Precision Scheduled Railroading is the exact same way that UPS has run its network for 60 or 70 years, which is you run it very efficiently, very effectively, and very balanced with as few assets as you can and leverage the efficiency of your employee base and the assets,” Barber said in an interview with The Associated Press.

All the railroad unions, which have been complaining about the deep job cuts since PSR became the industry’s standard operating model, came out in support of Shaw even though Norfolk Southern has also cut workers. And key regulators at the Surface Transportation Board and Federal Railroad Administration warned that Ancora’s strategy could jeopardize the advancements in safety and service Norfolk Southern has made since the East Palestine derailment.

But control of the railroad will ultimately be decided by investors — not the unions or regulators — who will vote on Ancora’s seven board nominees, and investors have reason to be disappointed in Norfolk Southern’s results given that the railroad’s profit margins have lagged behind peers. Several big investors, including EdgePoint Investment Group that ranks in the top 10 of the railroad’s shareholders, have said they will back Ancora’s slate, and a Deutsche Bank analyst said in a research note that the activists seem to have strong support among institutional investors.

Barber and Ancora’s pick to be chief operating officer argue that Norfolk Southern needs to aggressively implement the lean Precision Scheduled Railroading model to make the best use of its locomotives and crews and bring its profits in line with the other major freight railroads. That model calls for running fewer, longer trains on a tighter schedule and switching cars less often, so the railroad won’t need as many workers, locomotives and railcars.

If keeping more workers on hand was really the answer, Barber and the man Ancora wants to be Norfolk Southern’s Chief Operations Officer, Jamie Boychuk, questioned why Norfolk Southern can’t deliver more shipments on time now while business remains slower. The railroad said Wednesday that during the first quarter, it delivered 86% of the shipping containers it handled and about 76% of all the other goods on time. Norfolk Southern predicted that would improve in the second quarter, but its nearest competitor in the East, CSX railroad, was already significantly better.

Ancora wants to shrink Norfolk Southern’s workforce by about 1,500 jobs through attrition over the next three years while working to cut more than $800 million in expenses in the first year, and another $275 million by the end of three years.

Norfolk Southern says there’s no way to save that much in a year without laying off about 2,900 workers. The railroad said it believes the steps Ancora has outlined would only save about $400 million in the first year. Norfolk Southern has predicted that its own plan will generate that much cost savings within two years.

In one example of the dueling letters and presentations to investors, Ancora replied to that criticism and said most of its initial $800 million in projected savings come from things like parking hundreds of unneeded locomotives and thousands of railcars and improving fuel efficiency — not from layoffs.

Boychuk has experience helping CSX implement Precision Scheduled Railroading after a different investor group pressured that railroad to hire industry legend Hunter Harrison in 2017. That led to all kinds of service problems that year when CSX overhauled its operations quickly in the last few months of Harrison’s life, but since those initial problems CSX has come to be regarded as the industry leader in most respects and routinely outperforms Norfolk Southern in the eastern U.S.

Boychuk and Barber have promised to implement the model more gradually at Norfolk Southern, but they say major changes are needed — not the incremental adjustments the railroad is making under new Chief Operating Officer John Orr that it paid CPKC railroad $25 million to get the right to hire this spring.

Orr touted his background at other railroads and the efforts he has made in the first month on the job to streamline the way Norfolk Southern’s railyards are working.

But Boychuk said improving the way individual railyards operate without reworking the entire network will just push the problems out somewhere else along the railroad.

“It’s not about a point here, a point there. Or because I massaged a yard,” Boychuk said.

Norfolk Southern shares fell more than 3.5% Wednesday to trade around $236 after the report. Ancora predicts shares will reach between $420 and $525 over the next three years if it implements its plan.

Regardless of how the vote ends up, the fight over Norfolk Southern has already put all rail CEOs on notice, and the industry already had a history of investors forcing changes. Just last year, Union Pacific hired a new CEO in response to pressure from a hedge fund, but the most famous examples were when CSX and previously Canadian Pacific both hired Harrison to implement Precision Scheduled Railroading.

Current CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs knows he has to keep costs in line while also trying to improve customer service and grow the railroad.

“I think the way to bring those two together is to continue to deliver efficiency while demonstrating the ability to serve customers. And that’s the balance we’re trying to achieve and what we’re focused on,” Hinirchs said. “I think when you can’t achieve that, like we’ve seen, people are going to push for improved cost performance, to improve margins. And so we talk very openly and actively with our team about that.”

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