Ce matin, je partage avec vous un autre excellent article d’Yvan Allaire* et de François Dauphin publié dans le Financial Post le 24 janvier.
Les auteurs reviennent sur le parcours unique de l’ex-président du CN et du CP dans le domaine de la gestion des entreprises de chemins de fer.
Il ressort de ce portrait que le PDG possède une expérience sans pareil, liée à des processus de gestion inimitables.
C’est tellement le cas que M. Harrison a décidé de quitter un emploi très rémunérateur à CP pour accepter l’offre de 118 millions $ d’un Hedge Fund.
On compte sur sa solide expertise pour réorganiser et optimiser les opérations d’une autre entreprise dans le même domaine.
Cet article fait suite à un précédent billet qui portait sur le succès d’une démarche d’activisme (A “Successful” Case of Activism at the Canadian Pacific Railway: Lessons in Corporate Governance)
Cette situation montre clairement que les fonds activistes sont continuellement à la recherche de talents uniques et qu’ils sont prêts à miser des fortunes pour bénéficier de l’expertise incontestable d’un PDG.
Et vous, quelles leçons en retirez-vous ?
Bonne lecture !
In an unexpected turn of events, Canadian Pacific Railway announced the early departure of its CEO, Hunter Harrison, a few minutes before a conference call planned for analysts on Jan. 18. Instead of retiring as planned, Harrison leaves CP at age 72 for a new challenge, running another railway company (almost certainly CSX) on behalf of Mantle Ridge LP, a newly established hedge fund run by Paul Hilal. In his prior role at Pershing Square Capital, Hilal was instrumental in backing its investment in CP and installing Harrison’s management team.Harrison thus forfeited all benefits and perquisites that he was entitled to receive from CP, including his pension, and he has agreed to surrender for cancellation almost all of his vested and unvested equity awards. Evidently the hedge fund will make him whole for the loss of this package, valued at approximately $118 million.
What makes Hunter Harrison so valuable? In the enchanted world of finance, there are of course no limits to what someone gets paid as long as it is a fraction of what the payer will gain. Still, one would think that a hedge fund manager looking for someone capable of turning around a poorly performing U.S. company would have an abundance of candidates to choose from. After all, the operating tricks that Harrison has come up with to make railroads more efficient have been described in minute detail in books he’s written. Dozens of seasoned railroad executives have worked with him and for him over the years. They must have learned quite a bit about Harrison’s recipe.
The answer to the $118-million question appears to reside in the fact that the successful transformation of these railroads (CN and CP) was the result, yes, of operational improvements, but more so of a fundamental cultural change. Harrison is a formidable change agent, a transformational leader in the truest meaning of that tired expression.
He claims to have invented a principle called “precision railroading,” which he implemented at three major railroads: Illinois Central, CN, and CP, the last with spectacular results, bringing the operating ratio (operating costs as a percentage of revenue, with a lower ratio being better) to 58.6 per cent for fiscal year 2016, down from 81.3 per cent in 2011, the last full year before Harrison’s took over.
Precision railroading, if it was easily learned from a book and replicated, would have been applied with success long ago at every North American railroad. Yet Harrison still seems to bring something that can make a difference over and above the techniques he developed and implemented. That something seems to be his skill at changing the culture of the railroad, a most difficult skill to imitate.
As a lifetime railroader himself, his decisions and actions display a deep understanding of the daily reality of the operators. He spends time meeting with the workers on the field and communicates profusely about the importance of asset optimization and the control of costs. At CP, he took many symbolic actions to instill in the whole organization the need to think and act like a railroader. For example, he relocated the corporate glass-towered headquarters to a rail yard, a move that was meant partly to cut costs but mostly to keep the employees’ focus on freight operations, and remind them daily of what the business is all about.
Managing a strategic turnaround is not an easy task. The softer, cultural element of it is often neglected, overlooked, and difficult to implement. That is where Harrison excels and why a hedge fund manager is prepared to pay big bucks to get that talent working for him.
But is money really the sole motivation for Harrison to start over at another railroad company at 72? In fact, at this stage of his career, he has more to lose reputation-wise if he fails than anything he can really earn in monetary terms.
The Memphis, Tenn. native, whose career began over five decades ago as an 18-year-old carman-oiler, may be driven by the determination to prove that the theory he has developed is replicable, no matter where. And determined to push his legacy to a new level — that of a railroad industry legend.
*Yvan Allaire est professeur émérite de stratégie à l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) et président exécutif de l’Institut de la gouvernance des organisations privées et publiques (IGOPP), François Dauphin est directeur de la recherche à l’IGOPP et chargé d’enseignement à l’UQAM.