News from Patrick Flynn

Raising my hand

Editor’s note: As readers will note below, I authored this post over a week ago.  Today some of the facts I discuss become “official” which, hopefully, explains the delay in posting.

I’m in a somewhat reflective mood as I write this on September 12, unsure when, or if, I’ll actually post it.  It all began fifteen days ago, or about a year ago, perhaps four years ago, or maybe eight years ago, depending on how you track the course of events.

Starting in chronological order, I began my tenure at the Alaska Railroad Corporation in May of 2001.  The decision to leave my preceding job as chief of staff to then-House Democratic Leader Ethan Berkowitz was a difficult one but, as I have often said, having entered the institution of marriage and purchased a home in the preceding year, spending four months in Alaska’s state capital became a lot less attractive than it previously seemed.

I frequently describe my career at the railroad as the “player to be named later.”  Initially hired as the Public Involvement Officer, a newly-created position meant to seek out, collate and respond to public comments about railroad projects, resignation of the incumbent Public Affairs Officer meant I transitioned into that post prior to my first day on the job.  A corporate re-shuffle in my first month inspired a return to school (at night), ultimately leading to the attainment of an MBA.  Then things really started to move.

First, I was sent off to conduct research and develop plans for the railroad’s rolling stock (freight cars).  Next, to spend a season with the Passenger Operations group.  After that, tasked with management training for six senior conductors promoted to Trainmaster positions.  That completed, service as a Transportation officer and, (sort of) finally, promotion to the number two slot in the Marketing division in July of 2005.

Looking back, the railroad was near an apex then.  Fuel shipments from North Pole to Anchorage, the largest revenue product in the freight business, were near all-time highs.  The passenger business, aided by investments in new equipment, went from slow growth to explosive growth.  Most other lines of business also enjoyed moderate to substantial increases in volume and, with that, revenue.

Then the world became a very different place.  A dispute between Flint Hills, which operates the North Pole refinery, and the state over the price of royalty oil led to substantial reductions in shipments of petroleum products; the pace of North Slope development and throughout the railbelt slowed, and the world economic downturn depressed tourism.  Seeing and reacting to those trends, last fall the railroad reorganized and my portfolio grew significantly.  Where I had focused on freight marketing & logistics two more departments I’d worked with before, Passenger Operations and Freight Car Fleet Management, were added to my scope of responsibility, albeit with fewer resources (people and budget) than those departments previously enjoyed.

And things got worse.  Flint Hills informed us about further production cuts, cruise companies announced plans to redeploy vessels away from Southcentral Alaska and other areas of railroad business remained in the doldrums.  That brings us to fifteen days ago.

As a somewhat senior railroad officer I’ve been leading one of several teams once again re-baselining various aspects of our business.  (To explain, think of this as what you might do in your household if your income declined – you’d look at what you really needed and what you could do without.)  Many of us involved in that process were invited to a Friday morning meeting where a senior officer directing the project announced that, while worthwhile, the process was too little, too late – we needed to make plans for quicker, more significant cuts, primarily aimed at the operating side of the business.

The following Monday I was unsurprised to learn from the railroad’s president that the cuts would go deeper still and that I was tasked with further reductions in the departments I supervised.  But, thanks to the Friday meeting, I’d had time to prepare.

Later that afternoon I met with both my boss and his boss and told them the same thing.  I could and would find further savings, in part by eliminating jobs, but if they wanted additional cuts I’d recommend taking my job prior to going after those I hadn’t cut – I felt the remaining people were simply too important to daily railroad operations.

Frankly, I hoped they wouldn’t have to take that step – a hope akin to buying a lottery ticket thinking and believing you might win – but, as (realistically) expected, I learned yesterday my job was slated for elimination.  I’m lucky, most others don’t know yet (hence my delay in posting).

It isn’t final yet, the board of directors will see the plan and ultimately decide whether or not to approve it later this month or in early October, but presuming anything other than their endorsement is folly.

This epistle isn’t meant as an appeal for sympathy.  While my day job is a significant part of my life, and something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, it does (did) not ultimately define who I am.  And I’m fortunate that, as a born skinflint, I’ve saved money for rainy days like this.  Truth be told I’m more concerned about other railroaders whose jobs are on the line.  I’ll leave knowing I did my best to help the railroad succeed and then find something else to do; I hope they do, too.

Life is a funny thing – here’s hoping it’s laughing with me, rather than at me.



P.S.  For my friends in the fourth estate who might read this, please remember that my words are my own and do not represent the position of the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

This contribution was made on Tuesday, 22. September 2009 at 08:57 and was published under the category Other. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Pat…..Having worked with you on many levels over your eight years at AKRR, I have great respect for you as a friend, co-worker, boss, depot host ( I think I gave you that extra duty last summer – sorry!) and all the other roles you landed in during your time at the RR. I have to say, I am in shock that you are gone. What a loss to our organization. I appreciate all the contributions you have made to our business and all the support you have given me over the years. I have learned so much from working with you over the years and you will be sadly missed. Life is a funny thing but I am having trouble laughing today.

    Warm regards,
    Susie Kiger

    Comment: Susie Kiger – 22. September 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  2. You are a blessing to your family, your community and the railroad. Thank you.

    Comment: mom – 23. September 2009 @ 7:18 am

  3. Pat,
    Although eliminating “positions” is the kinder/gentler way of downsizing, I’ve never agreed with that. We, at the Alaska Railroad, ignore the value of certain individuals that make up the core and future of this company. I have expressed this opinion to President Gamble on more than one occasion. While we avoid potential liability from disgruntled employees that are let go, we find that sometimes our “best and brightest” are lost in this process. You certainly fall into that category. The ARRC has put a great deal of time and effort into your cultivation and for good reason. Yes, your position may not have been as important as others, but certainly YOU were.

    I’ve always felt that this company greatly benefited from your calm demeanor, cool head and wisdom beyond your years. We once had a conversation, ” this is our company and we’ll be running it someday”. I had so hoped to see you in the driver’s seat in the near future. Political aspirations or personal situations aside, this is truly a sad day.

    No “faith” needed. You’ll go anywhere you choose. Just sad the Alaska Railroad won’t be clinging to your coattails along the way.

    Comment: Brett Brown – 23. September 2009 @ 1:01 pm

  4. I applaud your logical, rational and self-less decision, Pat. Few organizations have the courage to eliminate senior staff positions when faced with a business downturn, even though eliminating a fewer number of those positions would save a greater number of employees who are working directly on the front lines. I have great admiration for the institution that is the Alaska Railroad and wish her well in facing another difficult period. Likewise, I wish you well as you open the next door of opportunity.

    Comment: Bob Cox – 23. September 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  5. Although I too applaud you on your self-less and personal decision to ‘fall-on-your-sword,’ I would like to add that it’s not your fault…………..nor did it have to happen.

    This sad day has been a long time in the making and those most responsible will escape the culpability and reckoning they deserve.

    If per chance, Gov. Parnell sees his way to conduct an in-depth investigation (by outside experts) into the decisions made in the last 10 years, the real reason for this travesty will come to light. At least one of them, who shoulders a large percentage of the blame, has been gone for a year now. Felled by his own lack of ethics and integrity that were noted years ago but…….were ignored by those who didn’t want to get their hands dirty by being involved with the day-to-day decisions.

    I won’t use your blog to go into more details but, this link is just the tip of the iceberg on my personal feelings.

    Best of luck to you and, as I have personally found out, getting away from what the ARR has become……compared to what it used to be… a blessing.



    Comment: ak_gandy – 24. September 2009 @ 4:30 am

  6. Pat,

    I’m not sure this is the proper arena to say this but it was a distinct pleasure working with you and I am in awe of your strength of character and integrity.

    I regret I wasn’t able to wish you well before you left. So, here’s me – raising my glass to your future successes, of which I’m sure there will be many.

    Warm regards,

    Comment: ruth rosewarne – 02. October 2009 @ 11:26 am

  7. Patrick, I run across this issue in the City. I’ve had managers frustrated and very upset when told to make cuts. I believe we will see that some of them will only cut so far before they too offer to cut themselves.

    It is a difficult time and I hope you the best when looking for new employment. It is a big sacrifice.

    I have a greater understanding of some of our conversations now.

    Best Wishes Patrick

    Comment: Jillanne – 17. November 2009 @ 12:28 am

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