Surrey businesswoman making tracks in a man’s world

Lisa Tuningley parlays experience gleaned at North America’s leading railroad track manufacturer to build her own materials supply company
Lisa Tuningley, president, T-Rail Products: "We are going to change the way people look at railways"

An industry that many view as something out of the “Jurassic period” for its perceived archaic ways of doing business is getting a shakeup from an unconventional player.

Not only has Surrey businesswoman Lisa Tuningley dared to enter what has been a largely male-dominated rail industry, but also her entrepreneurial efforts are being noticed.

Three years after Tuningley started T-Rail Products Inc., she has been named as a finalist in the Deloitte startup category of the 2013 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.

Approximately 3,000 women entrepreneurs from coast to coast were nominated for this year’s award. The 18 finalists will be honoured, and the six award winners announced, on November 27 in Toronto. The awards recognize women who share a strong entrepreneurial vision and a relentless passion in pursing their dreams.  

For Tuningley, that dream has been years in the making. It materialized in 2010 when she accepted a buyout offer from VAE Nortrak North America Inc., North America’s largest railway track manufacturer, where she had worked as vice-president of sales. Her father, Al Tuningley, who founded the Richmond-based company, now known as voestalpine Nortrak Inc., retired as its president in 2007. But Tuningley was adamant about making it on her own.

“When you have a successful father in business, you’re constantly trying to make your own name,” she said. “He has nothing to do with this business, but everything to do with who I am.” Her success so far, she said in an interview from T-Rail’s headquarters at a 52nd Avenue, Cloverdale, business park, has been encouraging. She founded the company during the economic downturn in 2010. It started with two employees – including Tuningley. It now has 12 employees, and annual revenue has grown to approximately $16 million from $6.5 million.

T-Rail supplies new and used track material ranging from ties and steel rails to switches and bolts to rail companies, engineering firms, contractors, ports and municipalities. But Tuningley said the value-added services it provides – such as managing the sale of surplus assets, refurbishing track materials and scrap disposition – set it apart from competitors. For example, she said managing rail scrap materials for Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. (TSX:CP) and improving the return on its assets put an extra $2 million into the railway’s coffers. The scrap previously went to smelters.

Tuningley said new rail construction in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. is creating demand for materials, and with the number of railway tracks in North America forecast to double by 2035, the future is bright, although the challenge is daunting.

Tuningley said another challenge is attracting innovators with new ideas and processes to modernize the industry.

“We [the Canadian industry] need to invite the new people, invite the new technology, invite the innovations,” Tuningley said, explaining that it was working with institutions such British Columbia Institute of Technology to help redefine the industry and show students that it offered lots of growth potential.

“We are going to change the way people look at railways.”

Michael Bourque, Railway Association of Canada (RAC) CEO, said in a speech to the Canadian Rail Club earlier this year that the country is in the midst of a “rail renaissance.”

Bourque said Tuningley has shown energy and enthusiasm as a business leader and has spearheaded an initiative to reinvigorate Canada’s railway clubs, including the one in Vancouver. 

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