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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / ‘Railroader’ examines the life and times of four-time CEO E. Hunter Harrison NEWSWIRE

‘Railroader’ examines the life and times of four-time CEO E. Hunter Harrison NEWSWIRE

By Bill Stephens | August 14, 2018

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Howard Green
Journalist-turned-author Howard Green conducted more than 14,000 interviews while at Canada’s Business News Network, including the chief executives of every major Canadian company and more than a few American firms.

But no interviews were like the ones he did with E. Hunter Harrison when he was at the helm of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.

“He’s just a fascinating story,” Green says of the man who transformed four major railroads. “I’ve never met anyone like him.”

It’s a small wonder, then, that Green saw Harrison as an ideal subject for a biography. Green’s book, “Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison,” debuts in September.

The well-researched 289-page book, which was two years in the making, relies on interviews with 75 people, including Harrison’s family, colleagues, and competitors.

Green spent about 170 hours talking with Harrison, including attending the last “Hunter Camp” training session at CSX Transportation in December, days before Harrison died at age 73.

Green paints a picture of a colorful and complex self-made man who found success reshaping the Class I railroads he led, stoking controversy at every stop.

“Everywhere he went there was thunder and lightning,” Green says.

The book chronicles Harrison’s life from his troubled youth in Memphis to his time leading Illinois Central, CN, CP, and CSX.

Green’s book is relatively light on operational details but heavy on personalities, boardroom politics, and corporate strategy. It’s clear that Harrison became increasingly focused on investors as he moved from CN to CP and, ultimately, CSX.

A self-described bully as a child, Harrison was a wayward teen who often ran afoul of his father, a Memphis cop. But Harrison found purpose — and his life’s calling — after hiring out with the Frisco.

Harrison fit the definition of a workaholic. And despite his reputation as a demanding boss, Harrison probably drove himself harder than anyone else. He left CN with hard feelings after not receiving a contract extension in 2009, Green writes, yet felt little remorse for job cuts at the railroads he ran.

As a brash American, Harrison wasn’t part of the small, clubby Canadian business scene and wouldn’t have tried to fit in anyway: His efforts to learn French ended at “Bonjour, y’all.”

Green unearths a few previously untold stories of corporate intrigue, such as a complex scheme CN cooked up in the early 2000’s to take a stake in CSX and send Harrison, then its chief operating officer, to transform the railroad’s operations.

In other cases, Green adds rich insider details to Harrison’s public exploits, including the 2012 proxy battle that led to Harrison becoming CEO at CP; CP’s ill-fated attempts to acquire Norfolk Southern in 2015-16; and the management coup that brought Harrison from CP to CSX in 2017.

The always competitive Harrison nursed a grudge against NS. After becoming CEO at CSX, Green writes, Harrison hoped to “kick NS in the nuts” by poaching 10 to 15 percent of its traffic.

Harrison would not live to see that day. And Green writes that Harrison’s health problems sparked intense debate within CSX about what to disclose and when.

There was never any question, however, about who was in charge — even if Harrison sometimes ran CSX from the comfort of his Florida estate while wearing pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers. He worked long hours, including nights and weekends, while quickly implementing his operating plan. And the concept of a holiday was simply unknown to Harrison.

Harrison told Green he had few close friends. Yet he developed a devoted following of colleagues he mentored. Among them: Mike Cory, the current chief operating officer at CN. Harrison demoted Cory once, but he rose to prominence at CN under Harrison’s guidance.

Some 700 people attended the celebration of Harrison’s life, Green notes, and Harrison’s ashes were scattered in the same Memphis rail yard where his career began.

Harrison critics and fans alike will find “Railroader” to be an engaging, insightful look at the man who could be funny and furious, charming and tough, but always interesting.

Harrison leaves a clear legacy, Green says: “How many people have transformed four publicly traded companies? I can’t think of anyone else.”

23 thoughts on “‘Railroader’ examines the life and times of four-time CEO E. Hunter Harrison NEWSWIRE

  1. “A self-described bully as a child”

    It never changed, but when the layer of greed was added to being a bully, a true sociopath was born.

  2. Right on, Mr. Spindler.

    After he died, someone pointed out EHH’s “generosity” because his railroad gave $12 million to charities over some period of time — but didn’t CSX promise to pay him something like $285 million? Talk about sociopathic greed.

    And this sentence illustrates one of the central problems with our form of capitalism and government right now: “It’s clear that Harrison became increasingly focused on investors as he moved from CN to CP and, ultimately, CSX.” If companies (and gov’t.) focus on shareholders and not customers and workers, the people who actually make the economy run and spend the money to keep it running will get screwed, plain and simple. I will not make predictions as to an end game, but most scenarios scare me.

  3. Since Cory became CN’s COO he has started to reverse some of the policies that Harrison started.

    Most notably, the treatment of train crews has really improved in the past year.

  4. Harrison came up through the ranks to become a strong-willed operations manager. He needed a strong CEO to restrain him from excessive behavior. I believe Harrison did his best work at Illinois Central and CN because of Ed Moyers (CEO at lllinois Central) and Paul Tellier (CEO at CN). Keith Creel at CP and James Foote at CSX are trying to repair the damage that Harrison did to those companies. .

  5. Railroaders, the men and womwn who run the trains, are much better off without Mr. Bully. Now if they can weed out the remander they can sing “I’ve been working on the railroad” again with pride. Gotta keep it clean but the no good dirty low life degererate Wall Street sons-of-billionaires can go “F” off. It’s a disgrace, no, it’s a CRIME, that a great nation like the United States still has a P poor minimum wage in Century 21. Gads, Third World Countries and Banana Republics pay their workers more when compared % wise.

  6. Howard Green really should pick up a business history book. He is quoted as saying, “How many people have transformed four publicly traded companies? I can’t think of anyone else.” Um, does J. P. Morgan ring a bell? From Wiki: “From 1890 to 1913, 42 major corporations were organized or their securities were underwritten, in whole or part, by J.P. Morgan and Company.” That includes over 20 Class I railroads.

    Or how about Jay Gould? He controlled the Erie, UP, MP, TRRA, NYC El, and Western Union. His son, George Gould, also built a railroad empire with WP, D&RGW, MP, WAB, W&LE, and WM. In other words, it’s been done.

  7. Re: Jay Gould. He raped Miss Katy by re-routing freight on Mopac and traded new Katy power and equipment for MP wore out junk. Read Katy Railroad and the Last Frontier by W.W. Masterson for the entire story.

    Part II. In the late 50’s along came a spider by the name of William N. Deramus III and did a number on Miss Katy again! Might call him a pre-E. Hunter Harrison.

    I’ll wait until I can find a well used copy of Mr. Green’s book so I can put all 289 pages to good use as toilet paper and use the cover as a door mat.

    When I hired out with AT&SF in 1968 I was forntunate to have served under President John S. Reed. He was a railroad man’s gentleman from the Get-Go. There was a Silent Pride among Santa Fe railroaders that could be felt system wide. When I left Texas and relocated to Germany in late 76 I never had heard so much as one nasty remark about Mr. Reed.

    RIP Mr. Reed

    The only thing I can say about Hee Haw Hunter is GOOD RIDDANCE and don’t come back!

  8. As others have pointed out already, there are several historical figures that led multiple large railroads and I would argue that they did it during times when railroading was much more volatile. I’ll be interested to read how the author backs up the claim that Hunter Harrison was a “genius”, as I’m only familiar with his exploits during his latter years and his concepts of sacrifice and “precision railroading” read more like small thinking at best, with little to be celebrated except by the short term beneficiaries on Wall Street.

  9. All I want for Christmas are my two front teeth. Nothing is welcome in my apartment with Hee Haw Hunter’s name on it. Of couse Wall Street admired him. He put human beings out of work and saved CSX millions. A Bully First Class if there ever was one.

  10. E.H. Harriman is another railroad leader from history that had tremendous leadership impact on multiple railroads (UP/SP-CP/Illinois Central). Also, Alfred Perlman, who, while not president/CEO of all the railroads he served on, was a very impactful and influential leader on: The D&RGW, the New York Central, then Penn Central (where he was dealt a very bad hand), and finally, the Western Pacific Railroad, which he saved from bankruptcy and oblivion.

    Yes, E Hunter Harrison was a very controversial figure in the industry. This sounds like an interesting read and I hope it lives up to expectations.

  11. I wonder if the author interviewed any rank-and-file workers? When he died, emails by the hundreds were circulated among working and retired CPR employees stating “Hunter is dead — Best Xmas ever”.

  12. As a reporter compiled a story on how multiple time CEO E. hunter Harrison turned several class 1 railroads around when he was at the helm even going to the extreme of interviewing close friends, family members and competitors even the last interview before E. hunter Harrison was found dead.

  13. This is disgusting. Attempting to build a selfish, conceited idol with feet of clay is futile. He crashed. EHH fulfilled the ultimate stage of the Peter Principle.

  14. Would be interested to read how railroaders that worked for Southern Railway’s D.W. Brosan would compare him with EHH. Both men seemed to definitely have their faults but were evidently brilliant operators.

  15. America has lost another grand patriot, Senator John McCain. It would be interesting to know how the United States would be today had the Honorable Senator McCain been elected to the office of POTUS. The Man would have represented EVERY American citizen regarless of political party one belonged to, or race color creed or religion, as well. RIP Sir. You will be missed by many.

    Can’t say that about Hee Haw Hunter or the current POTUS either. Two peas in a pod indeed.

    I don’t have a military record that comes close to that of Senator McCain but I did serve my country with pride serving three years with the US Army Transportation Corps.

    A Vet and Proud of it!

  16. Read “The Men Who Loved Trains” by Rush Loving, Jr., Scot. Good history about Al Perlman’s career. Tough break for him at PC.

  17. Is it really genius to just fire a bunch of people to make your productivity % higher. CSX customers hated them. Oh well, Hunters dead and gone to meet his Maker.

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