Employee Spotlight: Gregg Haug
We thought we would use this special edition of the Railroader to feature Gregg Haug, founder of Northern Plains Railroad and current chairman of the board, and take the opportunity to ask him a little about himself and the start of NPR.
Q. How did you get into railroading? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
A. No, not at all. I actually graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering degree. After school, I spent two years working for an engineering firm called Barton Aschmann Associates in the Chicago area, doing civil engineering. And my first job in railroading wasn’t until after that, when I got a job doing marketing development for coal on the old ICG (now the CN), where I worked for three years. At the time, these companies really liked having engineers with master’s degrees in Business Administration. So I decided to get my MBA from the University of Chicago—I would work during the day and attend classes in the evening. Once I had finished my degree, I got a job working at Canadian Pacific in the marketing department and stayed there for 12 years, and at that point I pretty much stopped doing any engineering and moved on to management. I enjoyed the new challenge, and didn’t really miss the engineering work, so I stuck with that, but engineering does give you training in very analytical thinking for problem solving, so I’m thankful to have had experience working in it.
Q. How did you end up eventually starting your own short-line railroad?
A. Well, while I was working at CP, they went through a bit of reorganization, and I was asked to relocate. At the time, I didn’t want to do that, and I heard about some short-line that was for lease and that needed management, and I thought I could be good at that, so I approached David Simpson at CP about starting my own operation. David is currently a board member for the NPR companies. Barney Olsen and I negotiated the agreements with David’s group. Barney was also a board member, until he passed away a couple of years ago. I leased the track, and the trains, and the depot in Devils Lake, ND, which we ran our offices and shops out of. And that’s where the original 12 employees and I started, and now we’re celebrating our 25th year in business.
Q. Those first few years always seem the toughest when starting a company. Was that your experience?
A. Absolutely. Starting any business can be especially difficult in the first few years, and a railroad has the added challenge of a lot of variables (weather, price of fuel, crop yield, etc.) that are hard to control—or completely out of your control. The weather was definitely our biggest challenge that first winter, but everyone worked really hard and we got through it.
Q. What inspired you to grow the original short line railroad into a group of multiple companies under the Northern Plains Rail Services name?
A. Well, we got to a place where we had a lot of consistent work for the railroad, and we were contracting out a lot of our repair needs. We started figuring out how to do things for ourselves and hiring people to do them. And once we had found a way to start doing that for ourselves, we started being approached by other business owners to help with services they needed. Once that started happening, we thought it made sense to grow ourselves into a company that was ready to help with those things. It also turned out to be a smart way to diversify our company.
Q. What have you enjoyed most about starting your own company?
A. I really liked having control over, and the responsibility to determine, how employees were treated every day. You don’t have that same control when you’re managing within a company, and as an entrepreneur and president of a company, you have a lot more power to determine the culture of your company. I’m proud of what we have all created at Northern Plains.
Q. Where is your hometown? Where are you from?
A. I’m originally from Eau Claire, WI, and I still have a lot of family there. Starting the company fairly close to my family was nice, and they have always been really supportive. My father would come out every year to see all the progress—he always enjoyed spending time getting to know the employees and seeing what we did every day. He loved riding the trains and even served on the board of directors. My aunt has always been similarly supportive and interested, and was able to make it to the employee picnic this summer with her daughters; it was great getting to show them around and have them see how much things have changed and grown.
Q. What are your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
A. I’ve always really loved getting outside on my time off. I have three dogs that I take on long walks or hikes every day. I also enjoy hunting and fishing. And I boat quite a bit with my family—my two daughters (Lauren and Erika) grew up doing long sailing trips with me every summer, and my wife (Kim) and I still enjoy doing them when we can.
Q. Do you have any favorite memories looking back on the last 25 years?
A. I know it sounds strange, but probably fighting those blizzards and floods the first two years. We had to figure it out and think quickly and problem-solve. We survived, obviously, and it was rewarding to get through it the way we did. Any time we have a year that’s more challenging than normal, it’s always been helpful to look back on those first couple of years and know that we’ve already made it through some extreme challenges, and that we can do it again.
Q. What are you most excited about for the future of the company?
A. Continued growth has consistently been what we do best, and it’s always fun to see where that takes us. I’m excited to see what comes next—whether it’s new service or new locations or both—it’s always exciting to see it come together.