Opportunity to help American railroad industry too good to pass up for Kettering University graduate

In 1978, Conrail offered John Samuels '66 the Chief Industrial Engineer position with the freedom to build a 100-person Industrial Engineering Department from scratch.

If presented with the option of having a guaranteed, secure, prestigious, high-paying job at a major university in a vibrant college town for the rest of your life, or joining an industry going through bankruptcy - which would you choose? What if all your colleagues diagnosed you as being insane for even considering the bankruptcy opportunity?

This scenario confronted John Samuels ‘66 in 1978 and he made a decision that caused his colleagues to question his sanity and future.

“I was 35-years-old. What I did was, I left a tenured associate professorship in the College of Engineering at Penn State to go work for Conrail, a northeastern U.S. freight railroad which was emerging from bankruptcy. That’s not something that everyone would do,” Samuels said. “The faculty took a collection up and gave me an envelope and it said ‘for psychiatric services as needed.’ They gave me the envelope of money, said good luck and sent me off.”

Despite the dire circumstances that freight railroads were in at that time, Samuels didn’t view the transition from academia to industry as a risk. He saw it as an opportunity to use his expertise to help an industry that was believed to be breathing its final days as an American institution.

“I wanted to apply my engineering know-how,” Samuels said. “I had been in the teaching and university research realm for 10 years, and I’d never had an opportunity to manage engineers and develop an engineering department. I wanted to try to do that during my career.”

The risk and the desire to apply his knowledge put Samuels at the forefront of one of the greatest industrial revitalizations of a for-profit industry in the history of the United States.

A Kettering Legacy

John Samuels’ father graduated from Kettering University (then General Motors Institute) in 1932 and worked for General Motors for the duration of his professional career. The family traveled from Flint to Dearborn and finally to Trenton, New Jersey, where Samuels’ father finished his career with General Motors (GM) as a Production Engineer in the 1960s. Samuels followed in his father’s footsteps back to Flint and started at Kettering in 1966.

“I was interested in becoming a really good manufacturing engineer,” Samuels said. “Kettering was a great experience for me. The co-op part of it was outstanding. I studied every facet of the General Motors plant operations in Trenton, where I completed my co-op.”

GM allowed Samuels to participate in the academic fifth year program. He spent an extra six months at Kettering while working at GM’s Warren, Michigan, Research & Development facilities.

Samuels graduated from Kettering in 1966 with a degree in Industrial Engineering. He deferred his full-time offer to return to General Motors in New Jersey and took a leave of absence to pursue a master’s in Industrial Engineering at Penn State. He received his master’s in 1968 after which he had the option of either going back to General Motors or pursue a doctorate degree. After Penn State offered him a full-time position as an instructor which covered the cost of his doctorate, he chose to stay in school.

In 1972, Samuels completed 11 consecutive years of post-secondary education en route to a Ph.D. in Engineering from Penn State and again found himself at a crossroads.

He once again had the opportunity to go back to General Motors like he thought he would after his master’s or pursue other professional opportunities in the private sector. But then a third option emerged unexpectedly and, again, when faced with the choice between school and work, Samuels chose school. This time, he accepted a tenure-track position at Penn State.

“I was on the fast track at that time,” Samuels said. “It was a very fulfilling job to have a professorship with a department of that stature.”

The year 1976 was a monumental year for Samuels. It was the year that he received tenure and it was also the year the railroad industry emerged from bankruptcy as a single entity - Conrail.

“In the mid-1970s, all the large freight railroads in the northeastern U.S. went bankrupt and the government reorganized them and formed an agency to oversee them,” Samuels said. “They gave the railroads $2.1 billion to help them emerge from bankruptcy. This was the biggest industrial turnaround in capitalist history at that time.”

Samuels, in addition to being a tenured associate professor at Penn State, was helping design Conrail’s maintenance facilities as a consultant. But in 1978, he received an offer to help revitalize the industry full-time.

Rebuilding America’s Railroads

“Several times in my career, when people offered me an opportunity, I always said this: give me an offer I can’t refuse and I won’t,” Samuels said. “I was given several opportunities in my life that I couldn’t refuse and I didn’t. Really good offers in your career are a recognition of your previous accomplishments.”

In 1978, Conrail offered Samuels the Chief Industrial Engineer position with the freedom to build a 100-person Industrial Engineering Department from scratch. Despite the overwhelming offer, Samuels still had to choose between a steady life-long job in academia and a risky private sector industry that was just emerging from bankruptcy thanks to massive assistance from the Federal Government.

“In those days, I wanted to get back to industry to see if I could run an engineering department,” Samuels said. “It was the right move to make. One of the reasons I made the move was because I was asked to do an initial assessment to see if Conrail could be profitable, and I came to the conclusion that, if properly managed, a railroad could be competitive and profitable.”

Despite reservations from his colleagues, Samuels took the job at Conrail and his career flourished as he was able to apply more than a decade worth of academic knowledge in the field of engineering and management. Less than 10 years later, in 1987, Conrail was deemed profitable, they went public and paid back the $2.1 billion loan they received from the Federal Government in 1976.

As Conrail’s profits soared and the railroad industry once again became an integral part of America’s economy, Samuel’s career paralleled the company’s success. In 1989, Samuels became the Vice-President (VP) of Continuous Quality Improvement, then the VP of Mechanical in 1991, VP of Engineering in 1993 and the VP of Operation Assets in 1995.

“People over the years have said to me that there are not a lot of academics who make a smooth transition back into industry,” Samuels said. “Most academics fail in that endeavor and go back to the academic world. I not only survived but I thrived in it.”

In 1996, just 20 years after emerging from bankruptcy, Conrail was sold to Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads for $10 billion.

“I made the move at a point in time when things started to turn around,” Samuels said. “It was the right move but a lucky move. Everything I’ve been associated with in my career has been very profitable and very viable.”

The luck Samuels couldn’t control, but the education background that allowed him to take advantage of his opportunities was at the heart of his success.

How Kettering Prepared Samuels for Industry Work

Samuels was 35-years-old in 1978 when he joined Conrail as the Chief Industrial Engineer yet the only full-time industry experience he had to that point was his co-op position at General Motors while he was an undergraduate student at Kettering.

“A lot of my success had to do with Kettering because of the co-op nature of the educational experience,” Samuels said. “I had the academic experience coupled with the co-op time to understand the dynamics of how industry works and what motivates people to work at all levels of a company.”

Samuels asserts that his career path was a linear progression. The Kettering education and co-op experience prepared him for academia at Penn State. Academia prepared him for consulting and all of it put together gave him a firm handle on how to thrive in industry and provided him with the foundation to take risks.

“During a lot of junctures in my life, I could’ve said ‘no’ and stayed where I was, but I chose to take the opportunities and the reason I had the confidence to take those opportunities was the background and education that I had,” Samuels said.

After Conrail, Samuels joined Norfolk Southern as the VP of Operations, Planning and Budget in 1997 before retiring in 2006. He continued to consult until 2013 but now is completely focused on fishing, golfing and spending time with his family. He also wants to help students to empower them to take advantages of the same opportunities that he had during his career. The Dr. John M. Samuels Scholarship Endowment was established at Kettering in December 2014 and provides financial assistance to Industrial Engineering students in good academic standing.

To this day, Samuels believes in the power of his education and is exemplifying his belief by believing in the education of others.

“I used every bit of engineering that I learned in school,” Samuels said. “I used every bit of every course that I ever took in college to manage my way through my career and all of the challenges associated with it.”

Written By Pardeep Toor | Contact: Pardeep Toor - ptoor@kettering.edu - (810) 762-9639