Numbers, Numbers. How Much is Hunter Worth?

When E. Hunter Harrison retired early from Canadian Pacific, news accounts noted that he left millions of dollars on the table in exchange for a limited waiver of a non-compete clause so he could pursue the CSX CEO job.

As it turned out, Harrison did no such thing.

On TransportationThe hedge fund Mantle Ridge agreed to pay Harrison the money he gave up at CP.

Mantle Ridge in turn wants CSX to reimburse it for the cash it guaranteed Harrison for walking away early from CP.

CSX claims that Harrison is seeking a four-year contract worth $300 million. That $75 million a year would make him not just the highest paid North American Class 1 railroad executive but also place him among the highest-paid CEOs in America.

By comparison, the man Harrison wants to replace, Michael Ward, earned $2.9 million in 2015. Another retired Class 1 CEO, Charles “Wick” Moorman, who agreed to take Amtrak’s top job for $1 a year, although he is also eligible for performance-based bonuses of up to $500,000 a year.

But Mantle Ridge counters that Harrison’s compensation package would actually be worth $200 million of which $120 million are stock options.

Such is life in the rare air of the corporate suite where eye-popping salaries are justified by saying a CEO brings a “unique skill set” to the job.

Executive compensation experts interviewed by Trains magazine said Harrison’s pay demands are at the high end of the scale, but not unreasonable by CEO pay standards.

Once the news broke that Harrison was seeking the top CSX job, the value of CSX stock jumped $10.4 billion, an increase of 30 percent.

Ben Branch, a finance professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, told Trains that CSX stockholders might think Harrison has a “dramatic plan” for improving the company.

“It’s rare,” Branch said. “You don’t have many situations where a CEO almost single-handedly is expected to deliver dramatic improvement.”

Jason Shiel, a managing director of finance firm Cowen and Company, told Railway Age the pay demanded by Harrison is a negotiating point and he is likely to receive less, although not necessarily much less.

Harrison is known for his scheduled precision railroading operating philosophy, which some railroad industry analysts say is similar to what CSX practices now.

Ultimately, some think Harrison’s long game is to engineer a merger that creates North America’s first transcontinental railroad. It is an idea he been peddling for years and failed to pull off last year when he proposed a merger between CP and Norfolk Southern.

For us mere mortals whose primary connection with CSX is watching its trains pass by, all of this talk about eight- and nine-figure executive compensation is nothing more than a parlor game.

The numbers baffle ordinary people who have no chance in their lifetime of ever earning a salary exceeding five figures a year. Most of us can’t fathom how you become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

For most CSX employees, having Harrison rather than Ward at the top will make little difference.

They will continue doing what they have been doing even if there may be some changes in how they do it.

Yet it is likely that some may find themselves victims of Harrison’s expected cost cutting.

In the eyes of Harrison and other high-ranking and well-paid railroad executives, labor costs are just another number to be reduced in order to please Wall Street.

How those reductions affect individual CSX employees financially and emotionally won’t be a subject of discussion at the special CSX board meeting. It never is.

All they talk about are numbers and for most of us that is all Harrison’s pay demands are.

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