Kash Krishnarao owns & runs Xorail
“I grew up in railroad signaling, and now I’m able to implement a lot of things I had often thought could be done.” – Kash Krishnarao
By Heidi Russell Rafferty
Kash Krishnarao can definitively claim firsthand experience in the trenches.
The year was 1991, and Krishnarao,
an immigrant from India, had just completed the first year of an MS program in CS and EE at Northern Illinois University. He was looking for
a job, and his brother-in-law told him the Chicago & North Western Railway was a good place to work.
“I thought I could be an engineer on
the railroad,” he recalls. “Not an EE, although I was one, of course, but actually driving the train. I heard they paid a lot of money.”
The interviewer said there was a job working in signals. “All of the years I’d been watching trains, I never paid attention to signals, but I was sure that as an EE I could handle it.”
But it seems that someone got their signals crossed. The first day on the job, the new MS in CS and EE found that his work would be to help dig trenches for the signal cables to run through.
A prophetic beginning, because today Krishnarao is owner/CEO of Xorail, a company that provides design solutions for train-control systems and highway grade-crossing warning systems. The company is thriving, thanks to the new emphasis on rail as a greener mode of transport.
And as for his experience digging ditches? Krishnarao says he was “fortunate” to have been given that job. “Doing this physical labor I started thinking that there’s more to a career than just studying something and reciting it back in exams. To produce something you have to do something concrete.
“It was a starting point for me to understand how the world really works. In certain ways it made me who I am.”
Krishnarao bought a company called Southwest Signal Engineering in 2007. Last spring he renamed it Xorail. Besides engineering services, the company provides field construction, equipment installation, solutions for rail communications networks, management oversight
for projects small and large, and CADD and similar support to complement design and construction.
Krishnarao notes that Jim Mayer, the company founder, began a new industry: supporting railroad signal engineering. The full scope of services now provided takes the company to the next level, working for transit and commuter organizations rather than just the large freight and short-line railroads.
“We anticipate growth in the next two to three years,” Krishnarao says. “The business is flat
at this point in time, but because of regulatory changes that are happening in the railroad signaling industry, we anticipate a huge demand for engineering and construction personnel starting sometime in 2010.”
Leading with the four “E”s
Krishnarao says he “leads with four ‘E’s”: envision, engage, empower and evaluate. “You have to envision as an entrepreneur or you don’t survive. Then you have to engage the people you work with to share the dream. You want them to take ownership of it and be able to perform in that area, and that’s where empowerment comes in. And I also believe in ‘trust but verify’: you evaluate the results and make sure it’s coming out as you expect,” Krishnarao says.
He also thinks a good manager is characterized by three “D”s: “Dream about something, devise how to achieve it and delegate others to do it!”
Krishnarao grew up in Bangalore, India. The family spoke Kannada and three other Indian languages. “My father, who worked at the Indian Institute of Science, gave me and my brother two choices: be an engineer or be a doctor.”
Krishnarao received his BSEE from Bangalore University in 1989 and came to the U.S. for
his masters. During that short stint digging for the Chicago & Northwestern, Krishnarao’s supervisors realized the true scope of his abilities and knowledge and moved him to junior engineer where he developed construction prints for signaling.
Building up signaling experience, Krishnarao moved to EJ&E Railroad (Joliet, IL) as supervisor of signals and communications, then to Harmon Industries (Grain Valley, MO) as a senior engineer, designing, testing and verifying complete signal systems. Next came a move to chief engineer and manager of signals and communications for the Metro Bi-State Development Agency (St. Louis, MO).
He moved to Safetran Systems Corp (Jacksonville, FL) in 1999. His first job there was senior systems engineer for the Norfolk Southern wayside signal and highway crossing design teams. He moved up to lead engineer and manager at the company, handling wayside signal and design teams for several lines including BNSF. In 2005 he became general manager, in charge of strategic planning and development at the Jacksonville design office.
Owning his own
About seven or eight years ago, though, Krishnarao started dreaming of owning his own company. He started working for Jim Mayer, owner of Southwest Signal Engineering, in September 2006 as an AVP, business analyst and advisor.
He has always enjoyed matching his engineering skills with his love of running a business. “It’s tremendous to have the engineering knowledge and also be able to work the business side. Once you know the life cycle of the business, you employ your intimate knowledge to produce what the customers need.
“I found a company I liked and people I liked, and then I learned that my new company might be sold out from under me because the owner was about to turn sixty. I figured I could either sit back and watch, or I could do something about it, so I decided to buy the company.”
Hard but fun
Today, Krishnarao’s hardest job is juggling family life with CEO demands. He has two children, ten and eleven, and he tries to “shut down the laptop” long enough to spend time with them in the evenings. His work usually requires a twelve-hour-plus day, but he loves every minute of it.
“Having grown up in this industry, I’m able to implement a lot of things I had often thought could be done. To see it actually work for me is very, very rewarding. The ability to do what I think is right is immensely satisfying,” he says.
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