As goes the nation’s economy, so goes the rail system, the CEO and chairman of one of the nation’s largest rail companies told Mays business students he spoke to recently.

“If the U.S. economy does OK we’re going to be really good, because you all love to buy things and it all has to be moved,” said Matthew Rose, CEO and chairman of BNSF Railway Company. “And if you believe in higher gas prices and population growth, then the railroads are in a really good position.”

BNSF Railway Company CEO and chairman Matthew Rose told Mays students that BNSF values employee longevity. “We need that level of expertise to run our company.” (view more photos)

Rail is environmentally friendly, Rose says. It can move a ton of freight 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel – and three to four times more efficiently than trucks. “One large intermodal train can take 280 trucks off the highway,” he says.

Rose has been CEO and chairman of BNSF since 2000. He was named president and chief operating officer in 1999 and for almost two years prior to that Rose served as senior vice president and chief operations officer of BNSF. Rose was 37 years old when Rob Krebs, his predecessor, told him he was going to appoint him the next leader of the company. The Fort Worth-based company operates one of the largest rail systems in North America, with 32,000 route miles covering 28 states and two Canadian provinces.

In 2010 BNSF was acquired by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. When Rose is asked to respond to the common belief that he is heir apparent to the 81-year-old Buffett, Rose says, “I don’t talk about it at all. Seriously,” and redirects the conversation.

When Rose was at Mays, Dean Jerry Strawser shared with the students a message Buffett wrote about Rose in his letter to shareholders. “When someone like Warren Buffett says you’re doing great things for society and mentions you by name, you know you’re doing something right,” Strawser said in his introduction.

Rose started his career in a management program at the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, and then held several positions in the trucking industry. He joined Burlington Northern Railroad in 1993 and had several positions in the Merchandise Business Unit.

Rose holds a bachelor of science degree from the University of Missouri, where he majored in marketing and minored in logistics. He is former chairman of the board of directors of the Association of American Railroads and a member of the boards of directors of AMR Corporation, AT&T, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Texas Christian University. He is also a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and the Texas Business Leadership Council, a member of Business Roundtable, a member of The Business Council and vice president of the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board.

Rose says he rewards longevity in his company, which he calls counter to the current business philosophy of “get a job, jump companies, increasing 10 to 15 percent every time.” He says he would rather hire someone straight out of school and keep them for 30 to 35 years. “We really relish the experience and the time with the company,” he says. “We need that level of expertise to run our company.”

Rose says he has been working on his company’s leadership model for 12 years. He thinks he can best benefit his company if he will:

  • Create a compelling vision
  • Model the way
  • Lead more; manage less
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Make development a priority. He encourages his employees to make development a priority, whether they take an outside course or learn a foreign language.

“The average life cycle of a CEO is about five years, so the corporate culture typically expects that the path will roll back, and everyone says, ‘This too shall pass,'” he says. “But we’ve been at it for 12 years, and I truly believe I could leave tomorrow and it would continue. It’s no longer what the boss wants; it’s part of our fabric.”