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By Pat Foran, Editor
Happiest of birthdays to CN, which will turn 100 next month, as managing editor Jeff Stagl reports in this month’s cover story. While the Class I’s leaders are reflecting on a century’s worth of progress, they’re also focused on the road ahead, as my colleague reports. They say they’re committed to delivering on the better-service promise and driving top-line growth.
I’m thinking they’re also committed to embracing change. During the 20 years I’ve covered the railroad, I’ve never known a CEO who didn’t embrace it.
In a March 1999 interview, President and CEO Paul Tellier talked with me about the pace of change at CN, which had been privatized in 1995.
Tellier’s vision was to transform CN, formerly a lumbering crown corporation, into the best railroad in North America. Transform it as in transform it now.
“This business of ‘Go slow, people need time to adapt’ — this is not good,” Tellier told me. “The faster you change, the more successful you are.”
When I asked him if he might be pushing too hard — the CN culture was still in reset mode after 11,000 jobs had been eliminated, and the railroad was just beginning to work its way through its 1998 merger with the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) — Tellier said: “If anything, I would do it faster.”
CEO from 1992 to early 2003, Tellier also talked quite a bit that day about former IC CEO Hunter Harrison, who’d signed on as CN’s EVP and COO. Tellier was counting on Harrison to help employees embrace change and get it together on the one-railroad-culture front. Harrison, Tellier added, “has an amazing capacity to identify a flaw in rail operations.”
Harrison, who served as president and CEO from 2003 through 2009, also had an amazing capacity to embrace and inculcate change, and to get others to embrace it with him. From putting the pedal to the metal with respect to the cultural (r)evolution to implementing precision scheduled railroading, Harrison over the years talked with me almost exclusively about change. I could fill three columns’ worth of quotes from him about it (e.g., from a 2009 interview: “When what you see is change, it sometimes flies in the face of conventional wisdom.”)
And Claude Mongeau nudged the change vernacular up a notch. After becoming CN president and CEO in 2010, he asked the precision railroaders of CN to continue to be change agents, to continue to stretch — to become “supply chain enablers,” as he told me during a 2011 interview.
“Something at CN is different — there is a willingness to change that sets us apart from other railroads,” said Mongeau, who stepped down in 2016 for health reasons. “That willingness to change is what will get us to the next level.”
Current President and CEO Jean-Jacques Ruest, who took the reins last year, suggested to Stagl that the railroaders of CN are doing just that. As Ruest put it: “Every single one of our 27,000 railroaders plays a key part in our company, and I want to thank them all for their dedication.”
Again: Happy birthday to CN and its 27,000 change agents. Keep on pushing. Yourselves, and this industry.