“To make the numbers, Knight figured that managers would need to deliver 15% annual returns on all new business and capital outlays.
Today the network planning group of 70 analysts oversees this process from cubicles on the 11th floor of Union Pacific’s office tower in Omaha. The “smart guys” are anything but wonks. Many are managers from the field who spend a year or two in the department and blend excellent math skills with rail yard know-how. A case in point is Danny Torres, who spent most of his career working in repair facilities and depots, and now runs a network of 10 terminals in Iowa. “We work with a financial model that says, How much profit will adding this siding or extra track add? Will it slow or increase efficiency in other parts of the network? When it’s all taken together, will the total return reach 15%?”
Knight also built a second financial function that might be called “green, yellow, red.” In each of the big operating businesses—coal, industrial products, chemicals, and so on—Knight installed financial managers to evaluate new business. They enter the proposed pricing on all new contracts, as well as the extra costs in fuel, manpower, and everything else the business will require, into an online operating system that projects the rate of return. If the number is well over 15%, the system flashes green. If it’s on the margin, the signal is yellow. “If it’s red,” says Knight, “and it’s the best pricing we can offer, we let it go.””