One of the most impressive CEOs I have dealt with in my career is Hunter Harrison – former CEO of CN and current CEO of CP Railway. As an analyst covering CN, I had the privilege of getting insight into his thought process. As shareholders, we were fortunate to participate in the stock’s performance.
Frankly, when he went to CP I was skeptical of what he could achieve. (Shame on me!) When Keith Kreel followed him over from CN I should have known what they could do. Fortunately, the market provides mulligans now and again, and with the weakness in freight markets over the last 18 months we have been given an opportunity to build a significant ownership in the railroad.
After reflecting on all of this, I realized that while early in my career I appreciated the financial output of everything that was achieved at CN; I really didn’t understand how it was achieved. So after recently meeting the duo for the first time in many years, Steve Groff dug up a copy of the two books Mr. Harrison wrote while at CN. While very difficult to come by, I would suggest that anyone interested in culture and leadership read these two books: How we Work and Why: Running a Precision Railroad, Vol. 1, 2005 and Change, Leadership, Mud and Why (How We Work and Why), Vol. 2, 2008.
Here is a selection of my favourite quotes:
“Some people argue that that’s just the way mature businesses go. Competition enters and the markets and the prices get beaten down until everything becomes a commodity and price is all that matters. To be blunt, this is simply the excuse of losers. Time after time, people and organizations entered stable, mature markets and turned them on their ears.” Vol. 2, page 13.
“An asset isn’t an asset, however, until it’s put to use. Until then, it’s a liability.” Vol. 1, page 22.
“It takes courage to try something different, but that’s what our culture is all about. Don’t follow, but lead the pack. We are fearless in our approach to trying new things.” (From an employee, sharing a real life example). Vol. 1, page 25.
“Passion is infectious. If you come into work each day with a passion to show everyone you work with what you are truly capable of, then you become a person others want to be around.” Vol. 1, page 56.
“I’ve made it a practice over the years to cut myself off from the noise and challenges of the day, shut my door, and just think. Some of my greatest innovations have come from these moments of reflection. It’s time well spent and something most people don’t do enough of.” Vol. 2, page 77.
“Patience is a virtue. Or so we are told. I hate it when people say that. I don’t agree. Any virtue becomes a vice when you take it too far, and patience is often an overrated virtue...A better virtue is persistence.” Vol. 2, page 104
“...I explained to Dr. Massey that we had been at this for years and we didn’t yet see an end in sight. “How long does it take?” Dr. Massey reflected for a moment, then said “Hunter, I’m not sure but I think Margaret Mead may have had it when she said “Cultures change one funeral at a time”.” Vol. 2, page 115.
In summary, the right motivation, process and philosophy consistently applied can lead to success even in industries considered commoditized. After missing the first part of the transformation at CP, I’m happy to say we are all on board for the next phase of growth…