Hunter Harrison’s timing was perfect for someone breaking into the rail transport industry, bestselling author Howard Green, who penned “Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison,” said during the keynote fireside chat Wednesday at FreightWaves LIVE Chicago.
Harrison served as the CEO of Illinois Central Railroad, Canadian National Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway and CSX Corp. He was born in Memphis in 1944 and began his railroad career in the early 1960s as an 18-year-old for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co., lubricating train wheels.
“[Harrison] started in the rails at the end of 1963, post war, just when jobs were starting to open up, not because he had any particular abiding interest in railroads — he went because it paid $2 an hour instead of 50 cents an hour at the bakery. He went for the money,” Green said.
However, Harrison quickly discovered an aptitude for the railroad business.
“He could just see how those networks operated and multi-dimensions and ultimately knew how to run them more efficiently than anybody else, which really became his hallmark — precision-schedule railroading. It became his calling card worldwide, ultimately allowing him to turn around the fortunes of four class one railroads,” Green said.
By the time Harrison died in 2017, he had become a legend by turning around several ailing railroads, making them into huge money makers.
Green is also an award-winning broadcast journalist and a founding anchor at Business News Network (BNN). He spent 15 years at BNN, where he hosted “Headline,” the network’s flagship interview program.
He said he became interested in writing a book about Harrison while interviewing him on Business News Network.
“Who’s been CEO four times and done four turnarounds? At the same time, as the book title suggests, there’s controversy. [Harrison] was a highly polarizing figure,” Green said.
“[Harrison] could be intimidating for a lot of people, I think because he was is a big barrel-chested guy with a big deep voice. He had no filters — he said what was on his mind,” Green said.
Nonetheless, Green added, “He is an enormous success story.”
Green joined FreightWaves Chief Strategy Officer John Engstrom for the discussion Wednesday. The fireside chats at FreightWaves LIVE are an opportunity for event-goers to hear unfiltered perspectives on how technological innovations and new ideas disrupt the traditional ways of doing business in freight transportation and logistics.