Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway Names Kathryn Farmer First Female CEO Of Major Railroad

Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF Railway has appointed Kathryn M. Farmer as president and chief executive officer, effective January 1, 2021. In taking the top job, she will become the first woman to helm a major railway operator in North America. 

She is currently one of the highest-ranking women at Berkshire, the multinational conglomerate of billionaire Warren Buffett. Farmer, who has served as executive vice president of operations since September 2018, joined BNSF in 1992 as a management trainee. Since then, she has held leadership roles in all of the organization’s major divisions, including marketing, finance and consumer products, the company’s largest unit. 

“I am humbled and honored to be asked to lead this incredible company and its dedicated employees—men and women that I have worked alongside for almost 30 years,” Farmer said in a statement. “We are well-positioned in our approach to safety and meeting our customers’ expectations while having the necessary capacity to grow with our customers. BNSF has long been a cost leader and we will ensure that continues into the future. I look forward to continuing BNSF’s success.”

Farmer will succeed president and CEO Carl R. Ice, who is retiring after 42 years with BNSF. He will remain on the board of directors, which Farmer will assume leadership of as CEO. Ice is credited with orchestrating the 1995 merger of Burlington Northern Railroad and Sante Fe Railway, which created what was then the largest rail network in North America. 

“One of the most important roles of a CEO is to ensure a strong succession plan is in place,” Ice said in a statement. “Katie and I have been working toward this plan for a long time. Katie has held many different roles at BNSF with an ever-increasing impact with each new role as she has built trust and confidence throughout BNSF. I am pleased for Katie and the organization knowing BNSF’s future is in good hands.”

The most immediate challenge Farmer will face as CEO will be navigating BNSF through the Covid-19 pandemic. The company generated $10 billion in revenue for the first half of 2020, a 14% decline year-over-year, due in part to a decrease in demand for consumer, industrial and agricultural products, and coal. Meanwhile, an increase in demand for essential goods such as groceries and PPE has required BNSF to ensure its freights are reaching their destinations.

BNSF is one of North America’s biggest freight transportation companies, operating approximately 32,500 miles of track in 28 states and three Canadian provinces. Berkshire Hathway acquired BNSF Railway in 2010. 

In a statement, Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett said, “We look forward to Katie’s leadership and more success. She possesses all of the qualities that make us excited about the future.”

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