William E. Greenwood
COO, Burlington Northern Railroad (retired)
June 8, 1938 – September 22, 2023
As an eighth grader, Bill Greenwood’s principal put him in charge of collecting lunch money for the entire school.
“I don’t think I did but half the work required in eighth grade,” Bill laughs, “because I was busy going around to all the classrooms collecting the money.” Bill delivered the cash, along with the day’s lunch count, to the cooks in the cafeteria. “They’d say, ‘Oh, we’re short three loaves of bread.’ So, I’d hop on my bike and run down to the bakery.”
The personal qualities that prompted Bill’s principal to entrust him with responsibility for the lunch program later became obvious to his supervisors on the railroad, as well.
While serving as a traveling car agent in the early 1960s, Bill recalls, “I started getting assignments -- and that kind of went through my whole career -- where there were real difficult things that had to be solved and for some reason or another, my boss at the time asked me to go tackle that particular hard issue.”
Bill’s strengths as a problem solver stem from his innate instincts into human nature. Throughout his career he used those insights to mediate conflicts between individuals, between management and the union, and between the railroad and neighboring communities. The result was always the same, a more cohesive workforce and enhanced operational productivity.
Among the challenges Bill was tapped to address in his career are:
gridlock and contentious race relations in the Burlington Northern Cicero yard;
high-profile, tense negotiations on an Amtrak contract that would become boilerplate for the entire industry;
explosive public relations issues with neighbors of a brand-new yard in Minneapolis; and
crippling workforce unrest in Alliance, Nebraska.
Bill’s skill as a people person enabled him to build some powerful teams. His personal leadership style was collaborative rather than top-down, a rarity in the railroad culture of the day, and he wasn’t afraid to work outside the box to resolve complicated, seemingly intractable problems.
The following video excerpt tells the story of one such challenge Bill faced while serving as Terminal Superintendent in Alliance, Nebraska. To hear the full story of Bill’s life and career and his rise from a tower operator to Chief Operating Officer at Burlington Northern, visit one of the links below.