Industry Profile: Jessica Kramer Havens

On Looking Back to our Industry’s History and On Moving Forward

Jessica Kramer-Havens

July 25, 2013. The third in our series of railway industry profiles focuses on Jessica Kramer Havens, President of Diesel Supply Company and the newest member of the RSI Board of Directors.

Jessica is a fourth generation railroader and owner of Diesel Supply Company, a locomotive parts company based out of Western Wisconsin. She also holds the position of Corporate Sponsor Chair for the League of Railway Industry Women (LRIW) which works to give women the opportunity to achieve a broader understanding of the railroad business.

Jessica operates offices in Western Wisconsin and Eastern Washington. She resides in Spokane, Washington with her husband, a fellow railroader, and son Taggart.

<<< Photo: Jessica Kramer Havens, President of Diesel Supply Co. and RSI Board Member, poses with a Wisconsin Northern locomotive fitted with her products.
 

RSI: Tell us about your family’s background in the rail industry.

JKH: My great-grandfather, Paul Kramer, worked for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad in the 1920’s and 30’s as a machinist. My grandfather, Al Kramer, also worked for the railroad until WWII, when he ran supply trains between Russia and Iran.  He was recruited from the army by ALCO to become a field service representative, where he worked until the early 1970’s. He then started Diesel Supply Co., which my father, Paul Kramer, bought from him in the early 1980’s after working for Pettibone and 3M. Dad specialized in locomotive sales, leasing, and parts until 2007, when I bought the company from him.

RSI: You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Glassblowing. How did you decide to stay with your family tradition of railroading as a career?

JKH: It wasn’t so much a choice as it was necessity. While en route to the RSI show in Chicago in September of 2004, by father suffered a heart-related blackout behind the wheel of his car that resulted in a near fatal car accident. The injuries he sustained in that crash eventually led him to take an early retirement from the business. At the time of his accident, I was residing in Florida, teaching glass blowing and running a small gardening business. My mother and sister had responsibilities that made them unable to step in, but I didn’t hesitate to sell my house in Florida, pack up and move home to help with the family business until Dad was able to return. What I thought was going to be a short-term commitment turned out to be a full-blown crash course in the railroad business, and ultimately a career change.

 I find great satisfaction in carrying on my family’s railroad tradition and will continue to grow Diesel Supply Co. so I may one day pass the tradition along to my infant son, Tagg – unless he decides to be an artist! I am in the process of building my own glass studio so I can get back to making art again.

 RSI: What are the advantages or disadvantages to being a female executive in the railroad industry?

JKH: I think it goes without saying that the railroad industry has historically been dominated by men. Although more and more women are joining the executive ranks and making great strides within our industry, we still have a ways to go. Operating my own locomotive parts business, I often find myself having to bite my tongue when I get a call requesting that someone knowledgeable in parts return a sales call. I think there is a lingering stereotype of women only being in administration and only men out on the shop floor.


RSI: Tell us about your company. Do you manufacture your own parts, or get them from a third party?

JKH: Since buying the company from my dad, I streamlined our business so that I could manage it by myself. Realizing that I couldn’t possibly learn in a matter of months what my father had learned over 30 plus years in the business, I eventually sold off our locomotive leases, locomotives, and huge surplus parts inventory to focus on wearable products used in every locomotive, regardless of the make and model. My company is an authorized distributor of locomotive starting batteries, locomotive lighting and locomotive seats.

 The product I’m most proud of are our locomotive brake shoes, which my father originally developed well before I ever stepped foot in his warehouse. By concentrating on the marketing and distribution of our brake shoes, I have more than quadrupled sales since 2007. To accommodate my customers’ needs, I have expanded the product line. After a year spent developing a pattern and mold and testing prototypes with a couple of regional railroads, I’m now in full production of a second style of brake shoe. The foundry in Minneapolis, MN has been able to employ two more full time employees to keep up with the demand for my brake shoe sales. I’m hoping to continue to expand the brake shoe business into freight car shoes in the near future. I guess one stereotype that I play into is that women love their shoes!

RSI: How is business in the locomotive parts industry? What are the challenges?

JKH: The current economic climate certainly poses a challenge to everyone in the railroad business, and especially to small companies such as my own. My father always told me to watch the railroads if you want to see what the economy is doing. Indeed, the railroad has proved to be a pretty solid economic indicator. My father also advised me to “always allow room for error” – wise words from a man who weathered tough economic challenges through the decades, and still managed to keep afloat. I think the biggest challenge for a small business like mine is to be able stay diversified enough to market to a variety of customers’ needs.

RSI: Tell us about your involvement with industry associations like RSI – why did you choose to become a board member?

JKH: After buying the company from my dad, I started looking into ways that I could best promote the company and learn more about the industry. I joined the ASLRRA and started attending their shows, as well as GEAPS (Grain Elevator and Processing Society), where I exhibited, as well as the LRIW (League of Railway Industry Women), for whom I am currently the corporate membership chairperson. All of these associations helped me to better gear my business for success, and to figure out how best to use my resources.

The opportunity to become a board member for RSI presented me with a chance to surround myself with industry leaders that I can learn from, and broaden my understanding of the railroad industry as a whole.  I think it’s easy to just keep the blinders on and only focus on the aspect of the industry that you’re directly involved with, but I think it’s invaluable to reach out into all the other aspects of the business of railroading and look for opportunities to network and grow. You never know what’s waiting around the next corner unless you get out there and look!

RSI: How can companies make the most of their membership in RSI?

JKH: My father was a member of RSI for many years, and used to speak at industry conferences about his experience in leasing and financing. Following his retirement, he stressed to me the importance of keeping up with industry trends and not getting complacent. Despite the railroad being one of the oldest industries in our country, it’s constantly evolving and if you don’t keep up with change and adjust your business plan accordingly, you’re going to be left behind. RSI provides a network of people and companies by which you can stay apprised of products, regulations, and news that directly affect railroaders, regardless of what area of the industry you work in.

RSI: Which service or benefit that RSI provides is most valuable to your company?

JKH: Being such a small company, any way that I can get my name out there is important.  Not only does RSI give my company name recognition through their advertising and an opportunity to show my products at their annual tradeshows, but it provides a forum for both industry leaders and railroad employees alike to meet and discuss issues surrounding their field of expertise. I love being able to see all the advancements in technology and new products at the annual conference, and having the ability to meet my colleagues in person.  Let’s face it; I don’t get a lot of walk in customers for locomotive brake shoes and batteries!

RSI: What’s your view of the future of the railway supply industry?

JKH: I’ve no doubt that it will continue to withstand the ebb and flow of the economy, as it has since the days of J.J. Hill and Cornelius Vanderbilt. To me, the American railroad industry represents our nation’s ability to adapt and to explore new ideas. Unfortunately, it’s getting more and more difficult for American manufacturers to sustain themselves as outsourcing both labor and manufacturing becomes more of the norm. I believe the long term viability of the railway supply industry in America will depend on the willingness of the railroads, from the regionals to the Class I’s, to support companies that employ American workers and U.S.-made products. I realize this is no easy task when every dollar counts, but my livelihood depends on it, as does that of many other small American companies. To me, the best way to ensure the future success of our industry is to invest in the innovators and the people who contribute back into our own economy!

By Carol P. Steckbeck, RSI Communications Consultant (csteckbeck50@gmail.com)