Book to be Out Soon About Harrison

As the CEO of four Class 1 railroads Ewing Hunter Harrison was a larger than life figure known to friends and foes alike simply by his middle name.

Harrison

Harrison has been deceased for less than a year and the first book about him is set hit the shelves on Sept. 18.

Howard Green has written Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison, which is being published by Page Two Books of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Green, who worked for the Business News Network of Canada, interviewed Harrison while he was the head of Canadian National and later Canadian Pacific.

“He’s just a fascinating story,” Green said of Harrison. “I’ve never met anyone like him.”

The 289-page book is based on interviews with 75 people who worked with Harrison, competed against him, or were part of his family.

Work on the book began two years ago and Green said he spent 170 hours talking with Harrison. He also attended the last “Hunter Camp” training seminar days before Harrison died last December at age 73.

A review of the book posted on the Trains magazine website said Green’s book portrays a colorful and complex self-made man who reshaped every railroad his headed but triggered controversy in the process.

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

The book focuses on the entirety of Harrison’s life, starting with his upbringing in Memphis and how he worked his way up from laborer to CEO of the Illinois Central and later CN, CP and CSX.

As a youth Harrison was rebellious and seen by many as a bully. The son of a Memphis police officer, Harrison for a brief time hung out with an older Elvis Presley.

The Trains review described the book as primarily oriented toward 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,” Trains correspondent Bill Stephens wrote.

During his career, Harrison was a workaholic who developed a reputation as a demanding boss who felt little remorse for all the employees who lost their jobs at the railroads that he oversaw.

Green said that Harrison’s American citizenship worked against him during his time at CN and CP because he wasn’t part of the small, clubby Canadian business scene and wouldn’t have tried to fit in anyway.

He made no effort to learn French, one of Canada’s two official languages, other than the phrase “Bonjour, y’all.”

Harrison had few close friends and Green quotes Harrison’s sister, Mary, as saying that her brother had “no life,” that it was “nothing for him [at a family gathering] to spend hours pacing on a conference call  . . .  There’s no day off. There’s no vacation. There’s no downtime.”

Yet when he died 700 people attended a tribute to his life. During his career, Harrison also developed a devoted following of railroad executives, some of whom spoke at their mentor’s memorial service.

Harrison was cremated and his ashes scattered about the Memphis railroad yard where his career began.

Green reveals that Harrison might have taken the helm of CSX in the early 2000s had a strategy by CN to obtain an ownership stake in the Florida-based Class 1 railroad worked out. At the time, Harrison was CN’s chief operating officer.

Although Harrison never held a grudge against CN after it declined in 2009 to extend his CEO contract, he did have hard feelings about Norfolk Southern, which Harrison and CP unsuccessfully sought to acquire in 2015-2016.

After becoming CEO of CSX, Green said Harrison reportedly said he wanted to “kick NS in the nuts” by capturing 10 to 15 percent of its traffic.

Green also reveals that Harrison’s health problems prompted an intense debate with CSX management ranks as to when and what to disclose about it.

By the time Harrison agreed to be part of an effort to oust CSX CEO Michael Ward, he had become a very wealthy man, saying that during his time at IC, CN and CP he was paid $500 million.

Harrison had three horse farms and three homes furnished with all of the lavish fixtures and trappings you might expect someone of such immense wealth to have.

Yet his real home was out on whatever railroad he happened to run at the time.

Railway Age columnist Frank Wilner in reviewing Green’s book likened Harrison to a railfan except rather than making photographs of trains EHH was barking orders to subordinates.

Harrison’s antipathy toward railroad labor is well known and been well documented. Many of the employees of his railroads loathed him in return.

But shippers also easily found themselves the targets of Harrison’s tirades. It may be that a railroad would not be a railroad without shippers, but Harrison viewed shipper demands as impeding his goal at the railroad of making money and lots of it for stockholders.

To that end, Harrison was less of a railroader than he was a rapacious capitalist who happened to work in the railroad industry.

Green described Harrison as “an unsentimental efficiency wizard who’d risen to the top by lopping expenses, maximizing the use of assets, and creating enormous value for shareholders [by] making the trains run on time. Investors came first. For him, the game was capitalism, pure and simple.”

Green concludes by saying that Harrison transformed four publicly traded companies, which the author found to be a rare fete.

But as accomplished as Harrison was, he didn’t live long enough to realize what may have been his most craved goal, the establishment of a true transcontinental railroad.

In concluding his review of Green’s book, Wilner observes, “Surely, [Harrison] possessed the ego, perhaps fueled by sharing initials with one of history’s most notable railroad barons—Edward H. Harriman. That Excalibur of railroading remains for another visionary.”

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