surviving cancer

The ballad of Richard Jay Corman

March 7, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

This Kentucky railroad baron isn't a household name. But his story is one of extraordinary success, generosity, grit, and sadness.

By Carol Loomis, senior editor-at-large

Founder and owner Rick Corman on a diesel locomotive in his Lexington rail yard.

Richard Jay Corman is hardly a household name. But this entrepreneur, a son of Kentucky, has made himself a force in the railroad industry, where in up-from-nothing fashion he has created a thriving, highly respected company. Called R.J. Corman Railroad Group, it's a construction and operating enterprise that takes in around $300 million a year. Rick Corman, 55, is its sole owner. Earnings? He will say only that it's "incredibly profitable." But we'll make an informed estimate: This business, after taxes, has in more than one recent year earned $50 million in profits.

A Kentucky friend of mine, impressed by Corman and aware also that he was facing some complex estate-planning problems, suggested he'd make a good story. You couldn't say the idea was a natural for us: Corman's financial feats, while first-class, don't exactly put him in the Fortune 500 league. Still, Corman seemed worth a trip, so last fall I went to see him in his home state. And well before we finished talking, I realized that he just might be -- apologies here to the Reader's Digest, which popularized this title -- the Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met in my more than a half-century at Fortune. That may seem surprising given that I've come to know more than a few standout CEOs over the years. But the emphasis here is on the word "character." In the way he operates -- and faces the world -- Rick Corman is truly larger than life.

And that's not just in business. Corman has also led a kind of soap opera existence, whose chapters he began describing to me in his twangy Southern drawl, and with a startling lack of inhibition, within minutes of our starting to talk. We were at his headquarters in the Lexington, Ky., suburb of Nicholasville, in a small conference room adjoining a cafeteria. He made sure I sat where I could look through a glass wall down to a hangar in which there were parked two private jets and a helicopter, all of them bright red (more on that later). At that moment, I was too obtuse to grasp how unusual those aircraft were. I mean, really, how many red planes have you seen? More

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