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The mother of invention

April 2020

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Inside the Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky, which is making hand sanitizer for Norfolk Southern.

Another round of American spirit: NS taps distillery-made sanitizer to keep employees safe

The COVID-19 outbreak has required adjustments to daily routines and changed how things get done. Yet through it all, Norfolk Southern employees continue to pull together and innovate in inspiring ways to meet these new challenges.

Topping the list is the health and safety of NS team members and customers. So for NS leadership, a nationwide shortage of hand sanitizer required creative solutions.

“We knew that some distilleries had begun making hand sanitizer during the shortage, so we reached out to a few,” said Kraig Barner, Central Region general manager operations, based in Cincinnati.

What Barner found was not only a willingness, but an eagerness from companies like Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky, to partner with NS.

“They immediately said yes and offered to provide five-gallon buckets, 50-gallon drums – whatever we needed,” Barner added. “Division Superintendent Brian Stanley and I made the 30-mile trip last week for the first 120 gallons.”

Yes, the first 120 gallons. Barner added another 120 gallons to the haul this past Monday. More is likely on the way sooner than later.

“Using our facility to produce hand sanitizer certainly isn’t what we originally intended, but we’re proud to partner with Norfolk Southern and other members of our community in this way,” said Royce Neeley, owner and master distiller. “We’re all working together to make the best of things during this time, and looking forward to resuming normal operations as soon as possible.”

While Barner made his way into the hallowed bourbon ground of Kentucky, Steve Guinn, regional manager safety and operation practices, was turning to Tennessee distillers.

“To this point, we’ve distributed 175 gallons of hand sanitizer from Ole Smoky Moonshine,” said Guinn, based in Austell, Georgia, on NS’ Southern Region. “We started by just giving them a call, explaining our situation, and purchasing a five-gallon bucket of the initial product. Once we confirmed it met all the necessary standards, we asked if they’d be interested in producing more for us.”

Based on the additional 170 gallons so far, that seems like an enthusiastic yes. The motivation is simple, Guinn added. “We’re doing all of this for one reason, and that’s to keep employees safe.”

All hands on deck

Thanks to great work and creative thinking, there’s now a lot more sanitizer for those hands.

It’s a commitment that extends beyond individual divisions and regions, said Todd Reynolds, Southern Region general manager operations, in Austell. For divisions without participating distilleries nearby or where supplies are low, Reynolds’ team is working to ship product to them as quickly as possible.

“We have a daily inventory process to determine where supply is running out,” said Reynolds. “We’re gladly transferring hand sanitizer to those locations to ensure everyone has what they need.”

Not yet two weeks into the process, Reynolds said NS purchases from distilleries is rapidly approaching 1,000 gallons.

How does it go from gallon jugs and five-gallon buckets to individual employees with a functional supply for their work station? Like all of this, it’s a collaborative effort.

NS team members across the system are leading the charge. They’re visiting Walmarts, Targets, Dollar Generals, and anywhere else you might find a 3-ounce plastic travel shampoo bottle – or anything similar. Then they are transferring the product into the bottles to be distributed to employees.

“We’re urging all of our supervisors to buy them, and re-use any empty hand sanitizer bottles we can find,” said Guinn.

To be sure, resourcefulness and collaboration at NS haven’t been in short supply. That’s evident across departments, divisions, and regions as operations leaders and employees can be found at all hours joining in efforts to keep the workforce supplied with what everyone needs to be safe.

“It’s been priority No. 1 to ensure employees have these bottles of sanitizer on their person,” added Barner. “Day-in and day-out, they’re the ones on the front lines moving freight and keeping the economy going, so we’re going to do whatever is necessary to get them what they need to stay safe and healthy.”

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Kraig Barner, Central Region general manager operations, loaded up the back of his SUV with 120 gallons of hand sanitizer from Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky.