In memoriam: Stephen Tobias, 72

Written by Mischa Wanek-Libman, editor
image description
Norfolk Southern

Stephen C. Tobias, former Norfolk Southern vice chairman and chief operating officer and former member of the Canadian Pacific Board of Directors, died Aug. 7.

“Steve was COO for most of the years I was chairman, president and CEO. He was a tower of strength for me and the company. He was a great railroader and, I believe, the best operations man in the business,” said David Good, former chairman, president and CEO of NS.

Tobias was a 40-year veteran of NS and, according to the railroad, he achieved an unparalleled legacy for employee safety and operational efficiency. NS was received 15 consecutive Harriman Gold Medal Awards under his leadership. The award was discontinued in 2012, but served as a standard by recognizing the best safety performances of railroads in the United States.

Tobias joined NS predecessor railroad Norfolk & Western Railway in 1969 as a junior engineer. He went on to serve in positions of increased responsibility including: Terminal trainmaster, superintendent, general manager, vice president of transportation, vice president of strategic planning, senior vice president operations and executive vice president operations. In 1998, he was named vice chairman and COO, the position he held until his retirement in 2009.

In May 2012, Tobias came out of retirement to serve on the Board of Directors of Canadian Pacific. CP credits him with steering the board and management transformation before Hunter Harrison was appointed CEO of CP in June 2012. Tobias left the CP Board in 2015.

In 2008, Railway Age magazine named Tobias “Railroader of the Year,” calling him “a true thoroughbred among operating officers.”

In addition to the accolades provided by Goode, NS notes that Tobias influenced countless NS employees during his career, including Mark Manion, Deb Butler and Terry Evans, who shared their remembrances of their hard-charging, tough-minded colleague, mentor and friend.

“Steve was assistant superintendent at Bellevue (Ohio) Terminal when I first met him as a management trainee. While he wouldn’t have remembered me, he made an immediate impression as being a hard-charging operating supervisor. That is in fact what he was throughout his career. I was fortunate to learn from him and to know him personally when I left a trainmaster’s position and worked as his assistant when he became the first general manager to ‘cross railroads’ following the Southern-N&W merger,” said Mark Manion, former executive vice president and COO.

Manion continued, “Steve was a tough-minded, sharp operating person. And while he ascended to a high rank within the company, he always stayed true to his roots – the roots he drew from that shaped his career, including growing up on a farm outside of Roanoke, Va., his years at the Citadel and his early experiences in field operations. All this served to mold him into a commanding leader who pursued operating excellence.”

Deb Butler, former EVP Planning and CIO first met Tobias in 1988 when he was general manager in transportation and she was a manager in the car and distribution and utilization department.

“Over the ensuing years, Steve became first, my boss, then a mentor and, finally, a valued confidante and friend. He taught me how to be tough and he taught me how to hunt,” said Butler. “He was a demanding leader who expected excellence and held his people to the same high standards to which he held himself. He could inspire both fear and loyalty with equal intensity. He was smart and visionary, an industry leader in safety and an advocate of the concept of what he called ‘scheduled railroading’ long before we heard a similar term elsewhere in the industry. He loved the rail business, but he loved his family and friends even more. Steve was one of the great ones and it’s hard to imagine this industry without him in it.”

Terry Evans, vice president, transportation, worked with Tobias in various roles for nearly 30 years.

“He was a great leader and mentor — one of the very best railroaders I’ve had the opportunity to work with at NS. He poured everything he had into the operation. He had many sayings and teaching quotes: ‘Discipline is training that makes punishment unnecessary’ and ‘Good ideas are where you find them,'” said Evans.

Categories: Class 1, Safety/Training