The life of Hunter Harrison, the revolutionary railroader who turned four publicly traded companies into cash machines, is chronicled in Howard Green’s new book, “Railroader, The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison”.
Also I have with me the man who chronicled the life and career of the hard driving executive and turned it into a best-selling book, Railroader, The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison. Howard Green joins me in studio. How are you?
I'm great. It's great to see you.
Nice to see you, too.
My old buddy from here.
I know-- reunion from a previous life. I have to start, and I don't give idle flattery, but the level of detail in this book is so rich, it almost feels like you're there. You're kind of in there like a fly on the wall in everything that's happening. And what I loved about it, too, is it's the level of detail-- not just him, but it's all the perspectives of some pretty influential people. So the access, I think, was pretty high on this book, wasn't it?
Thank you, Kim. That's very kind of you to say. It really was an exceptional project, a real privilege to be trusted to do this book. And with Hunter, I literally was a fly on the wall for much of the last year of his life. Even 10 days before he passed away, I spent three days with him in Florida.
And so many other people that you allude to gave me their time to talk about all sides of Hunter, because there were many sides to Hunter. And there are polarized views of Hunter. So yes, he was an unbelievable railroader. Paul Tellier, who ran CN said best railroader on the planet. People like Michael Sabia, those kinds of influential people that you talk about who worked with him.
The other side of the coin, and I think this is probably the tension throughout the book is the other view of Hunter-- the flip side, how tough he was, the people he laid off, his methods, and so forth. So there's a constant tension throughout the book. And I think the title illustrates that-- the genius and controversy. I tried to deal with both.
It was funny, because it reminded me of-- I know that he had multiple, I think, horse farms you talk about.
Yeah. They're incredible.
Yeah. He lived well, it sounds like. It sounds like he did reward himself for the hard work that he did.
But it struck me that he was the thoroughbred. He was the thoroughbred that was almost getting bought and sold by companies to come in and do the work they did. And it killed him. You know, he worked to the end.
He did. He was put on medical leave two days before he died. I saw him on the 4th, 5th, and 6th of December of last year. He died on the 16th. He went into the hospital on the night of the 9th. And he didn't come out. And then on the 14th, they put him on medical leave. It was a very difficult thing to watch a human being going through that kind of deterioration over the last year of his life, in particular, the last few months.
But I wish I had used that word, thoroughbred. Why didn't I phone you? That was the perfect word.
Because he was just so good at what he did. And like, he was the asset that Bill Ackman, you know, I won't say bought.
But-- and it was placed to do the thing that he does.
That's right. They placed him on the property, even going back to Illinois Central. The people who ran the private equity group, who brought him into Illinois Central, they had the idea to put him on the property in Montreal. You know, they put him on the property at Illinois Central. He did the job. They did the deal to put him on the property at CN. He did the job. Ackman brought him in to put him on the property at CP. And then Hilal, Ackman's former partner and friend-- well, current friend, as well-- put him on the property at CSX.
You called him, I know, in part of this-- the Steve Jobs of railroading.
Yeah, yeah. You know, I read Isaacson's book in the last few months that I was with Hunter, actually. And I told him about it. And he said something-- I'm trying to remember, exactly, the quote. It's in the book.
But he said, you know, a lot of people thought he wasn't a very nice guy. But I remember him sitting on the sofa in his office in Florida. And he said-- but he's a hell of a leader. And you know, when you go through all of the adjectives with Jobs-- relentless, uncompromising, and all of those things--
And not popular with a lot of people.
--not popular with a lot of people. Hunter shared a lot of those attributes. Now Isaacson paints a picture of Jobs as a person who's not too nice to be around, or wasn't too nice to be around.
Hunter was actually a lot of fun to be around. He was, as you said, charming. He was generous. He was funny. I mean, he could talk for hours.
There's a lot of salty language in here.
A lot of salty language.
I want to quote, like, nope! Can't say that, I can't say that.
Yeah. I mean, he was a storyteller like no other. He was larger than life. He was one of a kind, all of those things.
And, you know, one thing that he and Jobs did not have in common was how they dealt with a newborn child when they were very young. Jobs abandoned the child. Hunter, as he would say, manned up.
He was still a teenager. And that was a big shift in his life. He realized he had to become a different person. He was a bad kid growing up in Memphis.
He had to become a different person.
Yeah. So we say there's transformation throughout. I've only got a couple of minutes. But I want to ask-- did he give you any instruction? Because I read that you said that-- this is an unauthorized biography, but hurry up.
Yeah, he said write fast.
Did he know he was--?
I think-- we had several discussions about mortality during the process, the interviewing process. Going back, I think probably-- trying to remember now-- certainly April, May of 2017-- he died in December. Probably we had them earlier than that. It was on his-- he had many, many medical issues, the biggest of which was probably the lung issue, which required supplemental oxygen for the last year or so of his life.
But you know, even on the 5th and 6th of December, I saw him speak to CSX railroaders, doing Hunter camps there, like he did-- these preaching retreats where he'd teach them how to railroad, teach them how to be leaders. They're all sitting there in awe-- talking to them for six hours while on oxygen, no notes. I mean, it was staggering, really, the level of energy, the level of commitment that he had.
What do you think-- you talk a bit about, for him and this amazing driver. I mean, he created billions, or maybe hundreds of millions, I'd say, of market capitalization for lots of companies and shareholders. What do you think he wanted from this?
You know, I think, like most of us, he wanted to be understood. I think he felt somewhat misunderstood. There were a lot of scary headlines about Hunter. And he could be a scary guy. He could be an intimidating--
You asked him if he was mean. I remember that.
I did, and he remembered that. I asked him that on that set down there back in 2012, I think, during the CP thing. And he remembered it, and we talked about it in our very last conversation on December 6th of last year. And he was a very multifaceted, complicated guy. And we got to go, because you're doing this to me. So I know the signal. But it's so great to see you. And thanks for having me.
It was awesome. And I highly recommend-- I just want people to see it again, Railroader, The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison. Howard Green putting out his latest book-- and we look forward to more.
Thank you very much. Thank you for joining us tonight. Any comments and questions on anything you have seen or if you'd like someone to take a look at your portfolio, you have some planning questions-- email me at [email protected] I will get you in touch with someone who can answer those questions.