‘Foster’ing Connections

Written by Jennifer McLawhorn, Managing Editor
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Courtesy of Daniel J. Smith Photography, LLC.

ATLANTA - Railway Track & Structures, April 2024 Issue: A sit-down interview with L.B. Foster CEO John Kasel

This interview is from the April 2024 issue of Railway Track & Structures and can be found here.

For our April issue, I sat down with John Kasel, CEO of L.B. Foster, to get a better sense of the executive behind the rail supplier. Often, c-suite executives remain these picture-less names who are often heard of but remain squarely behind the desk. I did not get that sense from Kasel. As I interviewed Kasel, the word “connection” came up numerous times. In speaking directly with employees to foster a sense of camaraderie within the company, John Kasel strikes a person as someone who genuinely wants to get down to the root of a challenge and figure out the best way to solve it. 

Jennifer McLawhorn: Can you give us a background of yourself to give our readers some information about who you are?

John Kasel: I was born and raised in St. Paul. At that time, the largest employer there was Burlington Northern railroad, so the neighbors where I grew up were executives of the railroads. That was my first segue into what a railroad is. BN at that time was headquartered in St. Paul. So, I spent quite a bit of time there for my career [and] I moved around the Midwest quite a bit. Back in 2002, I was in Minneapolis at the time, and I got a call from L.B. Foster. It looked like a wonderful opportunity to work for a company that really wanted to do something related to LEAN operational effectiveness and become a world-class manufacturing operation but really had no leadership or ability to make that happen across all of North America. So, that was the thing that excited me because I did much of that working for other companies in the past. L.B. Foster was a small enough company where I felt there was an opportunity that I could do something and not be just a number, but where I had an opportunity to build a career. At that time, we had young kids, and it was an opportunity to go to a place where they could go through grade school, and we could settle down.

McLawhorn: What attracted you to the supplier industry? What made you want to stay and grow here? 

Kasel: It’s a small, publicly traded company. I first met with people who were running the company, [specifically] Lee Foster and Stan Hasselbusch. They were running it more like a family, and you could see that they had good, strong values and culture system. It looked like a great place to work [where] you could do things today, and you could see the results tomorrow. So, I liked that. They wanted help and really didn’t know how to get there, and I felt I could help them as well. It wasn’t a huge company by any stretch of the imagination, but I could see where we could grow substantially, and we have over the last twenty years. I thought I could be a part of that. It’s worked out well.

McLawhorn: It sounds like you really focused on the longevity of it and how much growth and potential there is. I read that you had introduced LEAN manufacturing in your first role, which seemed quite customer-centered. Is that something you’re still doing years later?

Kasel: We do it from two angles. We do it from the customer as well as the employee. Because the employee is the one that feels the pain. So, you really want to drive the behaviors and really help them get through their day and be more effective and efficient in what they do. That’s how you get the buy-in. And they know where and what the waste is. So, they feel empowered and engaged, and then it becomes part of the process moving forward. But you need to connect it to something. The easiest thing to do is to connect it to the customer. So, if you’re working with an admin group, you connect it to an internal customer such as another department. Much of what I did was in manufacturing operations, so you’d connect it to the end customer. In this case, it was the rail industry, the transit authorities, Class Is, Class IIs, or regional railroads. So, you have a better appreciation of what their pain is and how you affect them and how you’re what I call an extension of them. Then, you just connect the dots quickly. You don’t want to spend a lot of money on this stuff. You want to think your way through this stuff and get people really excited and motivated about making a change and doing it as soon as you possibly can.

McLawhorn: Stemming from that, what about your thought process? Whenever you’re developing anything new, is it collaborative right from get-go? Or do you take time to think your way through it?

Kasel: Well, I try to do what I can to think through it first, so I can formulate my ideas. I do try to drive the vision for the company, but the people who work for me are much smarter and more intelligent than I am. My role is to facilitate. So, I’ll throw a new idea like we did with the new brand (our centrifuge), but then I’ll get other people engaged in what we want to do. So, it’s all about facilitation. Keep it simple.

McLawhorn: Looking at L.B. Foster’s history going into the present and the future, what are you really excited about?

Kasel: We’ve been around for 121 years now. We’ve come a long way but at the end of the day, much of what we did was still making steel components. I wanted to do more than just make steel components. I want to bring technology and innovation into it. So, now we’re giving the end customer the ability to do something different, like when I was talking about LEAN. You’re working on safety and reliability in the railroad, but that’s a lot more than just components. In the last 15 years, we’ve branched off doing other things in the company. And we bought a company back in 2010 called Portec, which made us a global company literally overnight. And then, we did some acquisitions in the UK and Europe back in 2015 which brought in more technology. So, where we’re really starting to help the industry more than ever is with our condition monitoring. That’s designed to really help them understand how to make sure passengers and freight get to locations with reliability and repeatability. So, they understand if there’s an issue on the track. They understand if there’s an issue related to something going on with the train and manage it before it becomes a possible derailment or a slow order. So, that’s where the company is really transforming into a technology and innovation company, an effort that has been building over the past 15 years.

McLawhorn: Is there anything you can tell our readers that L.B. Foster is currently working on? 

Kasel: So many of the things that we have are now becoming more and more important to the FRA, especially with what happened in East Palestine, Ohio. It’s really understanding what’s going on related to the trains moving on the track. So much of the stuff we’ve had is becoming noticed and more widely adopted by the markets today on the transit and freight side. At the end of the day, it’s the suppliers and the end customer that need to figure this out together. I think over the coming years, things are going to change for the better in the rail space. Rail is only 2.7% of the emissions of all of the transportation market. So, I think it is the answer of moving things off of airplanes and trucks and onto the rail space. It’s about getting better at LEAN and getting those products and services to the end market and doing it on time. It’s making it as easy for the trucking carrier as it is working with the rail. Today, that’s not the case. There are many things that are happening in the rail space today that should help it be more competitive as well as start to move freight off roads and onto the rail systems. And people too. I think we’re going to start seeing Brightline and others come to fruition. I think we’re going to start seeing major cities being connected by rail systems.

McLawhorn: Like Brightline West.

Kasel: Oh yeah, that’s a great start. I spent a lot of travel around the world on transit systems that are fantastic. Then, you come to North America, and you can’t get anywhere unless you get on a plane or drive across the country. That needs to change. I was just in the UK last week, and I got around the country all on rail. I didn’t spend any time in a car. It was so nice. The other thing about the company is not that we just have products we want to sell, but we provide innovation in engineering to the end market. I think that’s how we differentiate ourselves. Customers come to us with a problem. One of the greatest things we can do is bring them a solution. And I think that’s what separates us from people just trying to sell what they have. We like to help them but do it with something that maybe doesn’t exist today or make modifications to something we currently have. We use the word ‘foster’ a lot, but it’s true. Our secret sauce is our people and connecting the employees with the customer. That’s the magic. And when you can do that, you’re in a really special place. 

McLawhorn: Is there a sector at L.B. Foster that you’re really drawn to?

Kasel: The company’s history has always been rail, so I gravitate toward that more than anything else. I do have that rail mindset, both transit and freight. It’s something that needs to continue to evolve. We’re moving people. We’re moving freight. So, at the end of the day, I gravitate towards that more than anything else. And, we’re doing our part to bring rail to the next generation. We need to get better. It’s like LEAN. You’ve got to keep evolving.

McLawhorn: You mentioned evolving. Is there anything you would change or add
to LEAN?

Kasel: Well, LEAN is all about common sense unfortunately [laughs], which isn’t that common. The thing with LEAN is that we do a lot of good things, but you have to sustain what you do. It’s all about getting the right things, but you’ve got to keep at it each and every day, or you lose what you gained. It’s not a project. It’s a journey. It is about evolving. It’s tough because you never get to the end. That’s the most frustrating but fun thing about it because you’re never at a destination. What I get excited about is when the job is easier for the people who make the products and services. It’s very rewarding to see come together. And today in a post-covid, virtual world, it’s not easy on the admin side. It’s much more difficult to connect than it was in the past. So, these LEAN principles are more important than ever. Behind all this, you want to have good KPIs (key performance indicators) and goals and measures, and you want to challenge yourself to get better. And then, you bring in the tools, and you work on one thing at a time.

McLawhorn: So, that’s really the secret sauce. You have your goals, your KPIs, your tools, skills, and the right people?

Kasel: The key is the people. Most of the time, 95% of the problem when you have an issue is never people. People really want to do a good job. It’s the process, so you want to keep working on the process. But if you have a person who doesn’t want to be part of the solution and is against what you’re doing, you have to make the change. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Most people want to see something get better and improve. 

McLawhorn: So, if that challenge came up, how would you go about solving that problem?

Kasel: First, clearly identify what the issue is. You glean information from your KPIs and data and say, “What does this really mean?” From there, what I’ve done is bring in a group of people together. And, then you talk about it. You start with the five ‘Whys’. “Why is this happening?” You go down about five levels where you start to understand, “Wow, maybe this is really cause and effect.” Then, you can get your tools into place and talk about action plans. It becomes a project where you go out and make something happen. You get people energized about it. I just facilitate. People have roles, responsibilities, action items, and I let them foster their activities and get things done. Whenever possible, I try to do things within 90 days. Because many of the problems we have we can fix just by talking and communicating and working on the process. You follow up and learn where you can take it to other parts in the organization. That organizational learning is where it gets kind of fun.

McLawhorn: Going from a smaller steel company to one on a global scale, do you find any challenges with maintaining a smaller, connective feel?

Kasel: There were two issues. One was getting our customers to understand we’re a different company today. Because they saw us as someone who just sold rail and track components. That was a whole pivot to a technology and innovation company than one that just sold components. And then, the connective part being global. As far as geography, it’s very difficult. What I do to help is travel a lot, but I also do town hall meetings often where we meet with the entire company at one time. And then, I’ll have other people speak to what’s going on with the company. I find that to be the best thing. And then, we have visual communication boards that we do. So, we have messaging to try to connect the employees which is very difficult to do when you’re working in different time zones. But, you have to really work at it. And there’s nothing like being in front of people. That’s why I try to do as much as I can to get out to visit our employees and customers. Staff, too. It’s never just me. You want to set that positive tone from the top. The best way to do that is face-to-face.

McLawhorn: “Foster” seems to be the best word here. How is it when you’re in these town hall meetings or any virtual space with employees? How do you help foster and maintain very open communication? With CEOs, people can be intimidated and may not want to bring something up.

Kasel: What you see is what you get with me. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I did a graduate program at Harvard Business School with big CEOs from all over the world. I know how some people act. I’m not that way. I act completely differently. I try to be very engaging. There can be the other side of me too that’s very serious and to the point. But when you’re talking to people, it’s about making them feel comfortable. So, I’ll talk to anyone at any time about anything and make myself accessible. Our job at L.B. Foster is to protect that culture. I said it before, but that is our secret sauce.

The importance of communication became the running theme throughout the interview. Kasel stressed that “Communication can end at one level, and then it just dies. When I visit, I grab small groups together, 12-15 people, and I just talk to them. They work in all facets of the company, and we just talk. There’s no agenda. They can ask me any question they like. Just like today. We just have a chat. They learn about me and what’s going on in the company. I find the most rewarding thing I do in the company is just to talk.” 

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