2013 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"A strong work ethic greatly impacted my career path."
Matt Rose had a Midwestern upbringing. He was born in Salina, Kansas, in 1959. Both his parents were born and raised there, so when the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when Matt was six, it was a bit traumatic. “I was the youngest of three children,” says Matt. “My grandparents had helped raise me and my sisters. Moving away from that safety net was a big deal for my parents. I think it made my immediate family closer because we had to rely more on each other.”
Matt’s father, who was college educated, worked with transportation providers—both railroads and trucking companies—to move grain, fertilizer and feed. Two nights a week, he supplemented his income by teaching transportation classes at the University of Missouri. Matt’s mother worked several part-time jobs. She was a seamstress and also taught classes at the YWCA. “One thing my parents were committed to was a college education for their children,” says Matt. “They were determined that all three of us would earn degrees, and they started saving for that when we were young. My father even gave blood once a month for the college fund.”
Even though money was tight, Matt remembers it was important to his parents that the family took vacations whenever possible. “These were driving vacations,” he says. “My mother would pack food for us, and we would go camping or maybe to visit relatives. We were taught strong family and faith-based values. We went to church every Sunday, and we were very neighborhood centric.”
From the time he was 12, it was expected that Matt would work at whatever jobs he could find. He mowed lawns and shoveled snow in his younger years. In high school, he worked in a retail store and had small businesses, including one where he strung tennis rackets and another one setting up basketball goals. To make sure Matt and his sisters could get themselves to work in the summers, Matt’s father would buy a very old car for them. They shared the car over the summer months, then Matt’s father would sell it in the fall, and everyone would return to taking the bus to school.
Matt didn’t think much about his future and didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living. When it came time to go to college, he was told he could go to any in- state school. He chose the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he majored in marketing and minored in logistics.
When he was in high school, Matt was an excellent student and was in the top 10 percent of his class academically. When he went away to college, however, his social life became more important than his studies. “I got an A+ in being social,” he says. “I actually flunked my first semester, and my father told me I had one more shot at making it.” That summer, Matt got a job with the railroad as a union employee. “I made more money that summer than I thought was humanly possible,” he says. He was encouraged by the man who got him the job to go back to school and get his education, which he did.
Matt graduated in 1981 on a Friday. The next Monday, he began full-time employment as a management trainee with Missouri Pacific Railroad. The railroad routinely moved him every six months to different mid- level management positions. His third move took him to Fort Worth, Texas, where he met his future wife, Lisa. When the railroad wanted him to move to Chicago, Matt asked if he could stay on in Fort Worth. The company declined his request, and Matt began working the night shift so he could locate another job that would allow him to stay in Fort Worth. “It worked, and Lisa and I got married,” says Matt. “Her father was ill, and I’m glad I put family first in this situation. It gave us an opportunity to be with Lisa’s father during his remaining years.”
Matt went to work in Dallas for the trucking conglomerate International Utilities, and then he joined what was the largest truckload carrier in the country, Schneider National. His next job was with Triple Crown Services, where he became vice president of transportation.
In 1993, Matt returned to the rail industry when he joined Burlington Northern Railroad. One year later, he was appointed vice president of vehicles and machinery. The following year, Burlington Northern merged with Santa Fe Railway, forming Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation. From that point to 1996, Matt served as the company’s senior vice president of the merchandise business unit. His quick rise through the management ranks continued in 1997, when he became senior vice president and chief operations officer. In 1999, at the age of 39, he was named president and chief operating officer.
Matt Rose was the youngest person in recent history to become CEO of a railroad company. All of his predecessors had been in their fifties when they took over the reins of the company. “I was scared to death,” he says. “All of a sudden, I was in charge of people I had worked for. After three or four years, I felt like I had grown into the job. I have a strong work ethic. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but I credit my parents with giving me a work ethic that got me to where I am today. I had a number of great mentors during that period, which made a big difference. When you pick a mentor, you pick a leader whose style is effective and you replicate what you see that works. I was responsible for the livelihoods of 40,000 people, and I took that responsibility seriously.”
Since 2000, Matt Rose has been CEO of BNSF Railway Company (BNSF). He has also held the position of chairman since 2002. BNSF, which has about 40,000 employees, provides freight transportation services over a network of 32,000 miles of track in the western United States and Canada with annual sales that have gone from $9 billion when Matt became CEO to what now amounts to more than $20 billion.
“When I became CEO, I was faced with a choice. I could either carry on the traditions of the company, or I could try new things. I surrounded myself with a number of very smart people, and we started making big changes. We started making promotions based more on performance than seniority. We have repositioned ourselves as a company where people want to work, and our future is brighter today as a major role in the supply chain for our nation.”
Matt says that he tries to meet every new employee who joins his professional staff. “I like to have conversations with new employees,” says Matt. “My message to our employees is that life is like a three-legged stool. You have family, faith and profession. When all three of those things are in balance, then you are a great employee. I also emphasize the importance of self- development. The job market has changed. Specific skill sets are required, and today’s workforce has to be willing to continue their education. It’s a process that never ends.”
When asked how he defines success, Matt says he used to think that if he ever made $100,000 a year, he would consider himself successful. But now he says, “My definition has shifted over the years. I have met my monetary goals, so now I see success in a broader sense. As long as I protect the institution for which I am responsible and continue to provide our employees with a job that enables them to enhance their family lives—then I feel I am a success.”
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Matt says, “This organization began in 1947, and it’s amazing to think about how many lives have been touched over that last 60 years because of the triumphant stories that have come from the Members and Scholars. There is no doubt in my mind that in the near future we will have people running our country who will look back and say, ‘But for my Horatio Alger scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.’ It’s great to be a part of making that happen.”