Railroader: A book review by Bob Morris

Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison
Howard Green
Page Two Books (September 2018)

Here is a CEO who was large…who contained multitudes

Howard Green tells his reader, “This book tells the story of [Hunter Harrison’s] life, extraordinary career, and accomplishments in an attempt to paint him, not just in broad brushstrokes, but also in the nuances — a portrait of the man as he truly was. Given his stormy upbringing and turbulent adolescence, it’s unlikely that anyone could have predicted who he would become.”

According to Green, Harrison (1944-2017) was “a compound of innovator, field general, motivational preacher, efficiency expert, and virtuoso of railroad minutiae.” What Walt Whitman once said of himself could also be said of Harrison: he was large and contained multitudes.

Green examines Harrison’s achievements as CEO of four railroads: Illinois Central (1993-2009), Canadian National (2003-2009), Canadian Pacific (2012-2017), and CSX ((2017 until death). He is generally included among the most effective leaders in an industry that  has played a major role in United States history at  least since 1830 when the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company completed the first mechanical passenger train –and the modern railroad industry was born. Green suggests that the railroad industry underwent major physical changes throughout the next 150 years but was managed essentially the same way until Harrison began to demonstrate the value of Precision Scheduled Railroading, “the operating philosophy that would become his calling card worldwide.”

Guided and informed by a “granular knowledge of railroading,” Harrison had a crystal clear understanding of its core business: “This is what you’re really trying to do as a railroad, run cars. You’re not trying to move trains.” Although he had only a brief tenure as CEO of CSX (March 6-December 16, 2017), he had substantial impact: its value increased $25 billion. “Aside from the stark reality of his passing, there were confident signs that the turnaround he had initiated had taken hold and would continue.”

Green thinks he was “the Steve Jobs of railroading: uncompromising, unrelenting, fierce, antagonistic, confrontational, and a winner.” He too insisted on “insanely great” results. The phrases “make a difference” and “make the world a better place” now fly through the air like arrows at Agincourt but they really do apply to Hunter Harrison. By increasing the profits and net worth of four different railroads, he also improved the standard of living and quality of life for millions of shareholders, many of them the railroads’ employees.

Include Hunter Harrison among those whom Steve Jobs once referred to as “the crazy ones.” That is, “the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers…the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the only ones who do.” And congratulate Howard Green on his brilliant portrait of the man “as he truly was.”

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