Friday, August 28, 2009

On the right track: Twin City Signal

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(This article appeared the July-August 2009 St. Croix Chronicle, a publication of the St. Croix Economic Development Corp.)

Even in the current economic downturn, it's been several years of full steam ahead for Twin City Signal in Hudson, Wis. In order to meet immediate demands for its services, the railroad signal engineering and design company, founded in Hudson in 1996, has expanded into an additional facility across from its 7,200-square-foot headquarters on Livingstone Road. The move nearly doubles its space, and founder and company president Lee Kisling sees rails and more rails in the future.

"We have our hands full of work - a major avalanche of work this summer and continuing for several years," says Kisling, who is now senior director for signal engineering services after the sale of TCS to Progress Rail Services, a division of Caterpillar International, in 2008. "We are really on the front wave and now are looking to increase our staff."

Currently the company employs 41 people in the design of centralized traffic control systems, interlockings and grade-crossing warning systems as well as the applications, upgrades, field service and training to support signal projects. Kisling says the company plans to hire about 12 more engineers and support staff in part to meet a $5-million annual contract to upgrade signal systems with BNSF among other rail signal projects in the works across the country and beyond.

While light and commuter rail lines are beginning and continuing to be a growth area in the future, says Kisling, the immediate industry need is due to a federal mandate, called H.R. 2095 or the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, that requires existing U.S. rail lines to upgrade their signal systems within five years. Federal economic stimulus money is likely to be used for more shovel-ready state and municipal projects or new rail lines or corridor extensions, Kisling said.

Kisling is no stranger to the rails. He worked for 20 years at BNSF as a signal engineer before starting his company when BNSF began outsourcing that portion of operations. Several BNSF colleagues accompanied him at start-up some 13 years ago.

"It was an opportunity for me, and I didn't want to relocate my family," said Kisling. "I knew nothing about business, but as an engineer I knew enough to solicit the help of a couple of other people. We were able to start up and grow, with our link back to the ‘mother road' of BNSF."

That relationship with BNSF has remained strong over the years, yet TCS has gone on to complete rail signal projects from Seattle and New Orleans to Chicago and Minneapolis, plus Canada and Sarajevo, Bosnia. The recent partnering with the PRS division of Caterpillar has given new steam to TCS's strength as well.

Such change doesn't come without trepidation, however, when you've fostered a successful business with a team of talented, dedicated employees. Kisling admitted he was initially reluctant to sell TCS, and after considering the reputation of PRS/Caterpillar, he decided that it would be a good decision for the future of the company, its employees and its client base.

"I was very careful as to what kind of culture any partner might bring," said Kisling, who is 58. "It was important for me, as long as I had tenure, to not disturb the momentum we have or my ability to manage the company and provide good outcomes for clients."

TCS didn't have to look for a partner.

"Caterpillar has a huge signal division that manufactures the aluminum structures, cantilever masts and signal masts, but they were missing the engineering piece, and they approached us. Their vision for the employees, the company and the clients was my main concern. After a year-and-a-half of talking, I felt it was a good fit," he said. "They had the same vision of both taking care of clients and taking care of employees."

Kisling also says that the sale is very beneficial in that it offers a new level of professional services in areas like contract negotiation, legal services, patent protection and other intellectual support areas.

TCS's proprietary systems include a logical simulator and a software configuration management plan, and one of its specialties is moveable bridge renovation and span automation for unstaffed bridge movement.

The company started in downtown Hudson with just a few offices on Buckeye Street near the riverfront next to the Hudson Marina. In 1999, TCS bought its original building, at 1515 Livingstone Road. That facility currently houses the small wire casing shop plus engineers and administrative support. An addition to the headquarters in 2002 was needed as growth continued.

In late June, TCS leased a 6,000-square-foot office and warehouse across the street from its headquarters. Currently office spaces are being outfitted, and a large case and bungalow wiring shop has been moved and set up along with additional warehouse space created.

Both wiring shops have experienced signal wire workers who create custom local control panels to site-specific locations and the wiring for casings, racks and bungalows used in signal systems. The components and housings must withstand years in the most rugged environments.

TCS is currently involved with the signal design, engineering and installation for Minnesota's first commuter rail, the Northstar Commuter Rail Line, where a diesel engine pulls passenger cars on existing freight lines from Minneapolis to Big Lake. The Northstar is scheduled to start operating in late 2009.

Kisling anticipates more projects like the Northstar plus electric trains running on light rail, like the Metro Transit Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis, as part of the transportation industry's future.

"It is very expensive to build new tracks, and every major city has rail lines already established for freight," says Kisling. "Rails are really the future of transportation in this country. We clearly see the future moving toward high speed rail, light rail, and commuter lines so we are thinking, like every business, to get ready or get left behind."

While the partnership with Caterpillar represents a change in company culture, Kisling says that by staying true to a mission of taking care of clients and taking care of employees, TCS will thrive. A written quality policy from PRS meshes well with TCS's mission from the start: "Program Rail Services pledges all products and services will be defect free, meeting internal and external customer requirements, the first time, every time."

Kisling says that's the same spirit that grew Twin City Signal.

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