When you think of iconic and successful CEOs, names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz, Jack Welch, and Sam Walton probably spring to mind. Can you name a 4-time CEO who orchestrated overwhelming turnarounds at each of his stopping points? I can, and his name is Hunter Harrison. He’s the subject of the book, Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison.
Our guest is the author of this biography, Howard Green. We talk about the CEO’s childhood, the relationship with his father, 3 keys to his emerging success as a railroader, and much more.
Is Hunter Harrison the Greatest CEO of All Time?
- If you held shares of the companies he ran, then yes, he was one of the greatest
- The employees who wanted to learn from him would agree
- A very polarizing person who was all about resutls
Key Takeaways Howard Green Gained from Writing Hunter Harrison’s Story
- His molecular knowledge of the railroad industry
- He learned the industry while starting at the very bottom putting oil on axel wheels
- He got into a lot of trouble while growing up – he was not school-smart
- He ultimately found his purpose in railroads
- He was overly zealous in his beliefs
- He felt a deep need to prove himself
- Always willing to do the unpopular thing – he always did what was best for the company
The Father-Son Relationship
- his dad was a pitching prospect
- a tour of duty left him injured never to play ball again
- his dad ultimately became a cop
- his father held high expectations for Hunter, his first child, but he never lived up to them
- he ultimately redeemed himself in his father’s eyes as he started to make something of himself in an industry where he started to prosper
- the relationship was ultimately patched up
Burning Bush Epiphanies
- the mentoring of Bill Thompson
- the introduction to Sue Rathe and her daily summary of operating performance reports
- his love of data which grew into his articulation and execution of Precision Scheduled Railroading
You’ve got it all backwards. You should be spending 80 percent of your time coaching and teaching and 20 percent on all the other stuff.William “Bill” Thompson, one of Hunter Harrison’s mentors
What Are Hunter Camps?
- Started while he was CEO at CN
- Since he was a natural teacher, Hunter would teach precision railroading at weekend retreats for managers for hours upon hours
- The camps were about changing the culture
- He also started the camps at CSX
Mark’s Reflections on Hunter Harrison
How good was Hunter Harrison? One of the key performance measurements in the railroad industry is the operating ratio which is operating expenses as a percentage of revenues. Here was his performance at Illinois Central, the first company he ran:
- high 90s when started
- 74% 2 years later
- 71% by 1992
- 64% by 1996 (he was told he’d never get this low
These types of improvements continued while he ran CN, CP, and CSX.
While Hunter Harrison was not a visionary in the sense that Gates, Jobs, or Bezos were, he was a master at operations. Customer service, controlling costs, asset utilization, safety, and recognizing and developing good people were his key drivers.
Yet, Steve Jobs and Hunter Harrison were similar. Both hated PowerPoint, both had problematic relationships with their fathers, both staged comebacks, both disliked Boards, both could command a room, both worked while sick. Then again, Hunter was charming, funny, and generous according to Howard Green.
A Favorite Book of Howard Green
I ask every guest about their favorite books. Howard is definitely a reader, but the one he mentioned is a title I went on to purchase – The Right Place at the Right Time by Robert MacNeil.