One of the hardest things for a company to do is survive and grow after the death of a larger-than-life founder like Richard Jay Corman.
Carol Loomis, a legendary business journalist who interviewed America’s most famous executives, wrote in a 2011 profile that Corman “just might be … the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met in my more than half-century at Fortune (magazine) … In the way he operates — and faces the world — Rick Corman is truly larger than life.”
Corman, 59, died in August 2013 after a dozen years of fighting multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. But R.J. Corman Railroad Group, the Nicholasville company he started in 1973 with a backhoe and a dump truck, doesn’t seem to have missed a beat.
“Rick built a heck of a company and a nationally known and recognized organization,” said Ed Quinn, who worked seven years for Corman and returned to the company last year as president and CEO after the retirement of Craig King, who led the company after Corman’s death and remains on the board. “That’s what we trade on every day and that’s why we continue to grow.”
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The company, owned by a trust controlled by Corman’s sister and three of his five children, has continued growing and acquiring businesses over the past four years. It also continues to be a major benefactor to Central Kentucky charities.
Probate documents filed in November 2013 valued R.J. Corman Railroad Group at $226.7 million. Since then, employment has grown from 1,100 to more than 1,600. Although the company doesn’t release financials, executives say annual revenues now exceed $350 million.
This year, the group’s R.J. Corman Railroad Co. is celebrating its 30th year. It began with the purchase of two Kentucky short line railroads in 1987 as federal deregulation allowed major railroads to sell off lines they no longer wanted.
Since Corman’s death, the company has acquired short line railroads in Texas and South Carolina, bringing its operations to 11 railroad lines with 904 miles of track in nine states. The company owns more than 100 locomotives and 475 rail cars, and last year they hauled more than 65,000 car loads of cargo.
Those railroads include the 148-mile Central Kentucky Line that runs through Lexington, where Corman’s signature red locomotives and white cross-rail fences have become a landmark at the corner of West Main Street and Oliver Lewis Way. The company’s first short line, in Bardstown, includes My Old Kentucky Home Dinner Train.
Next year, R.J. Corman Railroad Group will mark the 45th anniversary of its railroad services business, which Corman began by repairing and refurbishing track for major railroads. Those operations are based at shops on the company’s 1,600-acre main campus in Jessamine County and at field locations in 23 states.
The company’s best-known operations are its derailment and disaster recovery units, which can dispatch teams around-the-clock to handle some of the industry’s biggest breakdowns and cleanup jobs. R.J. Corman’s most famous job was helping clean up Gulf Coast rail infrastructure after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Last year, the company logged 4,560 emergency responses, including major floods in the Midwest.
The railroad group also has other businesses that serve both its short line operations and all seven of the nation’s “Class 1” railroads. Those include track construction and maintenance, equipment maintenance, materials management, signaling design and construction, and railroad employee training. The company also offers railcar loading services for such major manufacturers as Toyota.
Railroads were the kings of American commerce from the Civil War until World War II, but declined after the Interstate highway system was built, leading to the rise of the long-haul trucking industry. But railroads have seen a resurgence as part of the world’s multi-modalmodel transportation network. Rail is still the most economical way to move many goods at least part of the distances they need to travel.
“While trucks and trains are competitive, there’s also interconnection,” said Noel Rush, the company’s senior vice president for commercial development. “This is still a business you will see in 50 years.”
And by reopening short lines that major railroads close, the company can provide an economic boost to small towns and rural areas with factories and warehouses that shut down when the railroad lines did, said Brian Miller, that division’s president. He said the company is always looking for more short lines to buy.
“It has blossomed into a very good business for us,” said April Colyer, Corman’s daughter and the company’s public relations director. “We’re always trying to watch and adapt to the needs of customers in our industry.”