Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison by Howard Green

Over his career Hunter Harrison ran four railroads: Illinois Central, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and CSX. His gospel was Precision Scheduled Railroading. He’s usually credited with the PSR idea, although we can’t overlook the role of “Pisser Bill” Thompson in formulating the concept. “Pisser Bill” was called that because wherever he was on the railyard, if he had to piss, he would take his dick out and piss all over the place. That’s what railroading was like when Hunter Harrison began his career oiling traincars.

Harrison kept score by one main metric: operating ratio. Operating expenses divided by revenue. He cared about other numbers of course, but only as to how they’d affect operating ratio. You want a lower operating ratio: less dollars spent for every dollar earned.

Harrison focused on the numerator: expenses. He was obsessed with smart use and purchase of assets. One of his sayings was that an unused asset is a liability. When he found unused assets he shed them. On the Illinois Central, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans, there were two parallel tracks. Hunter got rid of one of them. He wanted to save the cost of maintaining it.  (Sidings were kept so two trains didn’t run into each other). He knew pricing would take care of itself because the railroad is almost a monopoly. He didn’t care much about customers. He saw some stickers once at a BNSF yard that said “the customer is always right.” He had them torn down.  Ignoring customers caused him some problems politically, especially in Canada, but it didn’t stop him from getting the operating ratio down. 

Harrison was a fanatic about trainyard efficiency. He rose up as a trainmaster in the Frisco yard in Memphis. Although he never went to college, Harrison had a pure mind for railroad management. When Sue Rathe introduced him to a new world of computerized data at Illinois Central, he immediately understood the potential and how to use it.  (Although no one would argue Harrison could not be gruff, Rathe tells us not to miss the gentlemanly side. Harrison encouraged people with potential. His bookshelf was full of memoirs of great coaches, he viewed himself as a coach, he used coaching metaphors.)   

As CEO, Harrison got the Illinois Central’s OR down from like 90% to mid 60s. The employees didn’t always like him for it. But they came to respect him. The alternative might’ve been bankruptcy.  

What produced results was the approach he would preach for the next two and a half decades – what train velocity does for efficiency, what longer trains mean for efficiency, and on and one. He saw better processes for everything, base hit after base hit.

There’s not much about this point in the book, but I wonder if Harrison had one key world historical insight. Railroading had changed. The Staggers Act of 1980 deregulated railroads. After that there was some nominal oversight but really the railroads could charge whatever they wanted. (The Staggers Act was meant to be anti-inflationary, it was signed by President Carter).    

The news that railroads were now, like, businesses hadn’t caught on. Railroads still acted like federal bureaucracies. Everything was inefficient.  The labor force was notoriously lazy, naps and “leave earlys” were common, drunkenness not unknown.  

That was in the US. Up in Canada mind, CN at this time was still nationalized! In fact not even nationalized, it was a “Crown corporation,” legally speaking it was more or less Queen Elizabeth’s personal plaything.   

Harrison realized (if I understand the book right) that pricing would take care of itself. Don’t even think about it, charge whatever.  Focus on cutting costs and moving cars (cars, not trains, a key point). You’d make huge gains in operating ratio. That would get reflected in the stock price, and ultimately in Harrison’s personal compensation. By the time he was done he’d personally made something like $500 million, which he used on estates for show horses in Connecticut and Florida, filling trophy rooms.

It wasn’t just having the insight though. Harrison had the combo of skills to execute. No easy job.  There was a lot of what he called mud to scrape away.  He was not shy about confrontation. During some lost years as a young man he once woke up in a pool of his own blood after a bar fight. He took that attitude into his railroads.

Activist investor Bill Ackman saw the possibilities. He took a big position in Canadian Pacific and fought to get Harrison appointed CEO. After some board room battling, Ackman succeeded.

When Harrison took over CP in 2012, he went up the offices in Calgary. It was the week of the Calgary Stampede. Hardly anyone was at work.

“It’s Stampede,” said one of the secretaries.

“Who gives a shit it’s Stampede? This company hasn’t made a penny and we’re worried about Stampede, having a few shooters at noon?”

Harrison turned CP around, starting with the mailroom, where he was disgusted to find a box being FedExed to a destination eight miles away. By then he’d run two railroads. He had a playbook. It was almost too easy for him. In eighteen months he brought the OR down from 81% to 65.9%. Two and a half years later, CP’s OR was 59.8%. He had the railroad using 40% fewer locomatives, he’d closed yars, he was increasing velocity and train length without sacrificing safety (although absolutely sacrificing love from the work force, which he reduced by about four thousand).

For this reader, the least engaging part of Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison by Howard Green came as Harrison was exiting CP to run CSX for a final act of his career. The details about board politics and compensation packages just weren’t as thrilling as turning around a railroad. I can see why Green devoted so much time to this period, however. He’s an anchor on Canada’s Business News Network, and he had access to Harrison during this time. There was some resentment of Harrison’s manner at CP. Harrison himself acknowledged to Green that he’d mistakenly assumed Canada was just like the USA, and Canadians just like Americans, but the business culture there was smaller, closer, and more sensitive, less blunt.

By the time Harrison left CP and went to fix up the “spaghetti-like” CSX*, his health was in rough shape. He took over CSX in March, 2017, and died that December. His ashes were scattered in the Memphis railyard.

Green sums up Harrison’s worldview on page one:

He reshaped an industry by literally making the trains run on time. While Sir Richard Branson advised executives to focus on employees first, customers second, and investors third, Harrison reversed the priorities: investors came first. For him the game was capitalism, pure and simple. You either played it or you didn’t.

Harrison’s legacy lives on. His protege Keith Creel is now CEO at Canadian Pacific. Bill Ackman is taking another bite of that apple. The question is: has Harrison’s Insight is already played out?  The operating ratios for all the major railroads now are in the high 50s and 60%s.  Some of those numbers include real estate sales. The railroads were given a great deal of land to induce them and help them build, much of it indigenous land, a continued resentment.

Are these railroads just now juicing their numbers by scrapping off their parts?  Is that the ultimate end of capitalism, for a corporation to achieve ultimate efficiency and then begin consuming itself, or rather allowing the shareholders to consume it in a cannibalistic ritual?

I should confess/disclose I myself am long CP and UNP and (through Berkshire) BSNF. Good luck building another transcontinental railroad. Canadian Pacific was built in five years. California will take longer than that to go from Bakersfield to Merced, although in fairness we’re not importing 15,000 Chinese laborers nor will the deaths of 600 people be acceptable. Both CP and the UNP were built with the aid of corrupt schemes. Corrupt schemes may still be rampant but they’re less effective, at least in North American railroad building.

Throughout this book are accounts of high stakes dinners and meetings at places like the Mount Royal Club in Montreal or The Breakers in Palm Beach. I know I’m not cut out to be a railroad CEO because I was reading and thinking, sure, sure this is a faceoff over control of the board but: what’s the food like? What’re people eating? I wanted the flavor! One meal that got my attention was a hasty conference at a Chick-Fil-A near Atlanta. That was the kind of food Hunter Harrison liked.

Cheers to Alex Morris, @TSOH_investing on Twitter, I think that’s how I heard about this book. I read it because I wanted to learn a bit about running a railroad, and I did!

* an example of Harrison’s mind: he could look at the map for CSX railroad and see that “stripped down, CSX wasn’t spaghetti; to Harrison it was more or less a square” with the corners being Selkirk, NY near Albany, Willard Ohio (60 miles south of Toledo), Nashville Tennessee, and Waycross, Georgia.



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