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Full Steam Ahead

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

An RC student is pursuing his railroad dreams.



Trenton Pfister (MBA ’24) has loved trains his whole life. He would spend time with his grandfather on the farm in northwest Ohio and watch trains for hours. “We could see them from the front porch, but we’d camp out overnight by the tracks . . . we spent hours watching trains. I got hooked.” 


I met Trenton outside on a brisk Boston spring day, bright sunshine blinding us and steady wind threatening to overpower our conversation. A Harvard MBA student who wants to work for a railroad? It turns out, I’m not the only one who he’s surprising. 


Trenton is an RC student in Section F. He’s tall and lanky with a smile that fills his whole face. He’s married to his high-school sweetheart, a product designer, and together they radiate classic Midwest-style kindness with a solid dose of enthusiasm. 


He explained his path to me. “I wasn’t able to kick that fascination with trains. I didn’t really pursue it as a hobby then, but it was always there.” After graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in finance, Trenton started his career with an investment banking firm – one which happened to have a transportation-focused team. “I wanted to join that team.” 


While clocking in his time in IB, Trenton did work in mergers & acquisitions, capital raising, and other standard fare – but it was about railroads. “I loved it,” he said, his smile dialed up to ten as he recalled his time there. After banking, he took a job working for the co-founders of a private equity firm, a role that continued to keep his career options open, but took him farther from railroads. Now, at HBS, he’s all-in on pursuing his long-term love. 


“I wanted to come to HBS to see if my fascination with railroads was just a hobby or something I wanted to build my career on.” Instead of enrolling in a short intensive program over winter break, he attended one of the country’s largest railroad conferences – but only after some effort. “They didn’t have a student ticket price online,” he related to me, laughing before he got to his punchline. “So I emailed them, saying I’m a student from Harvard Business School . . . and they were just stunned! Said they didn’t normally have MBA students, so they invited me to come for free. It was a great opportunity.” 


Finding an internship for the summer had a similar do-it-yourself touch: heavy on the networking, light on the on-campus events. “Candidly, there weren’t many people coming from an MBA background who were interested in working for a railroad. They’re seen as an old, industrial business that’s not interesting . . . it’s seen as a business from our grandparents’ generation. But I think it’s just as important now as it was generations ago.” 

At this point in the conversation we started talking about the derailments that have been in the news the last few months. As an industry outsider, that’s the basis of my knowledge. Trenton pointed this out to me. “Speaking just as an observer here . . . unfortunately, railroads are only in the news when something bad happens. The reality of freight railroads in North America is that it’s the best freight railroad network in the entire world. In terms of safety, its role in the economy, in jobs that it provides – it touches every aspect of our economy.” We talked about steps that are and will be taken to further improve safety. This was the first time in our discussion that we’d gotten into the proverbial nuts and bolts of the industry, and there was a clear spark in his demeanor. His passion is clear. 


That passion, that unidentifiable light he has when he starts talking about railroads, is why Trenton has been using his time at Harvard to explore this career path. “I can’t fully articulate why I’m interested in railroads, but I know if I don’t try to pursue it now I’ll look back and ask ‘what if?’ I don’t want to do that.”  What advice does he have to students who feel the same, who would pursue management jobs off the beaten MBA recruiting track? Trenton admitted that “it comes with trial and error with your previous professional experience. I needed to think and reflect about what I wanted to do and take some risks. I feel comfortable stepping out of the more normal MBA path because I have a good sense of what my passions and interests are. Being comfortable and curious enough to pursue that doesn’t come overnight.” 


Now, he’s working on communicating that in his conversations within the industry. He explained, “A lot of these railroads have a homegrown approach to developing talent. The reason they typically hire from within is the inherent level of institutional or industry knowledge required. You have to come in with a sense of humility. I can’t come in and claim to be an expert in their business, but I can come in and learn. I have a hunger to learn, I want to understand.” 


As we wrapped up the conversation, the light reflecting off the building in the late afternoon, some of Trenton’s sectionmates stopped by our table. It was a heavy week in FIN2 and we talked about corporate finance, strategy, growth, and development. The same spark he has for trains was still here, too, as we chatted spreadsheets and numbers. It is so obvious that he loves them both: trains and management. As I packed my stuff up, he threw out one final comment, almost an aside, but it was indicative of everything we’d discussed. “I want to do an MBA job in the industry I love.” 



 

Brynne Gosch is an MBA RC partner. She has a Master’s in Public Health from University of California – Los Angeles and most recently worked in infectious disease diagnostics.

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