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Union Pacific: Still chugging after 150 years

July 3, 2012: 12:03 PM ET

Choo-choo! Union Pacific CEO Jack Koraleski bangs gavel during the ringing of the closing bell at the NYSE.

Will Netflix still be around in 2147? How about Facebook in 2154? Or Groupon in 2158? Probably not. Scores of companies, particularly in consumer tech, come and go. That makes the longevity of a business like railroad giant Union Pacific (UNP) all the more remarkable.

The company celebrated its 150th anniversary on July 1. President Lincoln apparently took time from his busy schedule of fighting vampires on July 1, 1862 to sign the Pacific Railway Act. That paved the way for Union Pacific to start building part of the first transcontinental railroad.

I spoke with Union Pacific president and CEO Jack Koraleski Monday at the New York Stock Exchange, where he and 11 other Union Pacific workers rang the closing bell in honor of the company's sesquicentennial, about the company's long track record (Sorry. Couldn't resist ... just consider yourselves lucky I'm not indulging Baby Buzz and sprinkling references to Thomas The Tank Engine and Dinosaur Train throughout the piece) and the U.S. economy.

Koraleski said that Union Pacific is holding up well despite the global market and economic turmoil, noting that the fact that markets react to the morphing stance of German chancellor Angela Merkel shows how volatile the climate is right now. It's clearly a concern for the company since Koraleski said that about 40% of its business either originates or terminates somewhere outside the U.S.

"The world is getting smaller," he said.

But even though there are fears about growth slowing in Europe and China and worries that the stagnant job market in the U.S. will hurt domestic consumer spending, Koraleski said there are glimmers of hope.

He noted that the business of transporting oil in the United States is "booming" and that there is also strong growth in shipping cars and trucks. Healthy June auto sales reports from Ford (F), GM (GM) and Chrysler Tuesday morning seem to confirm that the comeback in Detroit is for real.

Related: Riding that train: Railroad earnings are a great sign

What's more, Koraleski said that Union Pacific is even experiencing an uptick in lumber shipments. That is encouraging given the use of wood in home construction. Koraleski pointed out that his railroad is taking equipment out of storage to accommodate the increased demand for lumber for the first time since 2008.

"We're not declaring victory yet," he said, when I asked him if this was a sign that the housing market has finally bottomed. But Koraleski said that all signs point to a continuation of a "steady as she goes" slow recovery in the United States.

The one major negative for Union Pacific is the decreased demand for coal shipments this year. Part of that is due to the unusually warm winter throughout most of the country. But the continued attractiveness of cheap natural gas as an energy source also is hurting the coal business.

Still, coal shipments account for a much smaller portion of Union Pacific's business than other railroads. That's a key reason why Ed Wolfe and Scott Group, railroad analysts with Wolfe Trahan, a New York-based investment firm focusing on the transportation sector, wrote in a second-quarter earnings preview report Tuesday that Union Pacific is the top stock in the industry.

Union Pacific's stock is up 12% year-to-date, outperforming rivals CSX (CSX), Northern Southern (NSC) and Kansas City Southern (KSU). It's also topped the performance of the broader Dow Jones Transportation Average (DJT). That's due largely in part to the fact that railroads have been able to steal more business away from trucking companies.

Peter Tuz, co-manager of the Chase Growth Fund in Charlottesville, Va., said that Union Pacific's diversity should allow it to do well as long as the economy doesn't slip into another serious downturn. Tuz said that Union Pacific is one of the fund's top five holdings and it is the only railroad stock he owns.

"One of the reasons we bought Union Pacific in 2010 was because it was doing tremendous business moving coal and agricultural commodities. We figured that if the rest of the economy ever picked up, it would do really well," Tuz said. "This is a good, balanced company. There is no reason why it shouldn't continue to report strong earnings." Union Pacific's earnings are expected to increase more than 20% this year. That's higher than the projected growth rates for CSX and Norfolk Southern.

The world's most famous investor is a fan of the business as well. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought Union Pacific rival Burlington Northern Santa Fe in late 2009. Buffett famously referred to the deal as an "all-in wager" on the U.S. economy.

Union Pacific, like Berkshire, is based in Omaha. Koraleski said that he was surprised by the acquisition but that he viewed it as a vote of confidence in the railroad industry. He added that the purchase brought more investor attention to the few remaining independent railroads.

And for what it's worth, Union Pacific's stock has done much better than Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) since the Burlington deal was announced.

"We're still the biggest railroad in Omaha," Koraleski quipped.

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