Rachael Peterson Builds a Winning Strategy with People

Chief People Officer Rachael Peterson sets Watco employees up for success by implementing digital platforms that improve their work and their lives

Photo: Wheat Photography

“You know that one about the turtle up on the fence post?” Rachael Peterson says. “It didn’t get there alone. That’s how I am.”

That spirit of familial collaboration drives not only her work as the executive vice president and chief people officer but the entire company she works for, Watco. ”Watco is a service company,” Peterson says. “We provide transportation and logistics solutions, which is all about people.”

Peterson spends her days considering how programs and policies will impact people and sees the company as an inverted pyramid, with customers and frontline team members the most important factors in decision-making. She wants everyone in the company to know, “You are here because you play an incredibly important role and we want to win.”

Understanding the company as a team comes easily to Peterson. Raised by her grandfather, a faculty member and basketball coach at Pittsburg State University in Southern Kansas, she remembers his funeral in 2007 as a transformative moment in her life.

Rachael Peterson Watco Companies
Rachael Peterson, Watco CompaniesPhoto: Wheat Photography

“So many former students and players told me that he had impacted them more than any other teacher or even their parents,” she says. At the time, Peterson was working at Watco, implementing their SAP program. Sitting in front of a computer every day did not fulfill her lifelong desire to help others, so she left to pursue a PhD in HR development. After a few years, Watco asked her to come back and lead their Watco University initiative, which focused on building leadership from within.

Peterson came to understand that she did not need to be a college professor to impact people. In 2014, she took on her current role of chief people officer, where her constant goals are to find the best people, develop leaders, offer great benefits, and treat everyone fairly and respectfully. She deeply embraces Watco’s sense of family and support.

The founders had a simple vision, Peterson explains. “If you take care of customers, bring on great people, and take care of them, then you win.”

Watco, founded in 1983, offers a massive spread of services around transportation and supply chain logistics: everything from moving products via rail, water, and truck to material handling and storage to infrastructure design to railcar repair services. Peterson is proud to say that Watco’s very first customer continues to be, more than thirty years later, a loyal customer. The company that started with eight team members now boasts nearly five thousand.

The constant expansion means change. “With growth comes new team members . . . and paperwork. Hundreds of pages of paperwork,” she says with a laugh. Since taking on her role in 2014, Peterson has worked to, as she says, “get out of the paper storage and re-keying business.” This has meant a shift to digital solutions aimed at making team members’ lives easier.

Watco implemented Success Factors, SAP’s cloud-based HR platform, to guide team members through everything from recruitment to goal setting. Peterson understands that she must make sure Watco team members support the change. To that end, her team offers training as well as clear explanations around how the digital platforms will make team members’ work and personal lives better.

This transition to digital frees up Peterson’s people services team to focus on actions that build relationships and build a supportive culture. “We set people up for success,” she explains. “Not just make sure we have their address correct.”

“If you take care of customers, bring on great people, and take care of them, then you win.”

When asked, she explains that a great culture means that a company is safe, service minded, humble, and family focused. One that team members are proud of. “Don’t sit back,” she adds, insisting that team members daily seek new ways to improve. “We must keep people safe and get them home.”

The majority of Watco team members are remote. They operate locomotives, load freight, and work in railyards when it is twenty degrees below zero. “We want them to think about supporting the customer, not paperwork,” Peterson says. With a measured rollout, the transition to digital has been a massive success. Peterson credits this success to finding a mobile solution with intuitive UX, scalability, and excellent visibility. “Information is now in the hands of people that need it,” she says.

However, she stresses that the key to building an effective system is asking if a change actually represents an improvement for team members.

As the rollout settles and the new digital system becomes an institutionalized part of Watco, Peterson prepares for other projects. While she is not quite sure what her exact next moves will be, she says, “Whatever happens next, the answer will come from what our external and internal customers need.”

Since she was a child talking to her grandfather about his coaching days, Peterson knew she wanted a career that benefited others. She is proud to say that the current Watco people service team is the best she has seen. They are winning. They get a lot of things moved safely and efficiently. And they put a lot of turtles up on fence posts.