Hunter Harrison has, without a doubt, become a legend in the railroad industry. Throughout his career, he introduced many new methods for addressing the high costs inherent in such a labor-intensive heavy industry. He demonstrated the importance of partnering with customers and suppliers to create synergistic solutions. His business strategies are still being talked about and applied. But his personality will never again be replicated.
Being a woman in a male dominated industry, and working with Hunter on and off over the course of nearly 20 years, has provided me with a unique perspective of his business acumen and his personality. You may heartily agree or disagree with my interpretations of this unique man, but I can guarantee, no one who ever met Hunter left the room without having formed a strong opinion.
Throughout my career, both in the railroad industry and in cancer research, I have been blessed with amazing mentors. But the individual who steered my course in the most dramatic directions was definitely Hunter Harrison. He provided me with many technical challenges, and rewarded my efforts with offhanded praise and valuable business insights. He explained business strategies in a way that convinced me he had the ability to look at business problems in three dimensions, while the rest of us struggled to see them in two. I am well aware he had a reputation for being a tyrant, and there were times when I was fearful of his reactions. But under the right circumstances, he was equally able to show his personal side, the man who doted on his family and shared humorous anecdotes.
I first heard about Hunter following the merger of the Burlington Northern (BN) with the St. Louis San Francisco (SLSF) railroad in 1980. Bill Thompson (from the SLSF) became the Senior Vice President of Operations for the merged company, and it was no secret that Hunter (also from the SLSF) was his right-hand man. Hunter was immediately assigned to the position of Assistant Vice President of the Seattle Region. Thompson had his office on the 9th floor of the headquarters building in downtown St. Paul, just down the hall from the Transportation Division, where I worked as Manager of Special Projects.
One of Thompson’s first complaints was he had no reports to measure the performance of the BN portion of the combined railroad on a daily basis. My boss, Phil Westine, Director of Transportation Planning, accepted the challenge of creating such a report and assigned it to me. I had developed a reputation for effectively interrogating the various databases storing historical train, car, and locomotive data. Thompson’s staff provided me with a copy of the report the SLSF used, and I immediately went to work. Upon completion, Phil christened it the “Daily Summary of Operating Performance and Statistics (DSOP).” I only saw Mr. Thompson in person twice, when the DSOP ran late due to computer related issues, and I hand delivered it to his office. Nobody else wanted the duty and I could understand why. Both times he just glared at me and grunted.
In 1982, Hunter was transferred to the corporate headquarters in St. Paul and fairly quickly took over the position of Assistant Vice President of Transportation. One of his first activities was to interview all of the management personnel in his department. After Phil completed his meeting, he came to me to tell me what a terrific guy Hunter was, smart and innovative. I just shook my head and said, “Oh, Phil, sometimes you are so gullible.” But Phil was convinced I would be equally impressed when I met Hunter, and informed me Hunter had set aside three hours to meet with me and Phil the next day. Hunter hadn’t met with anyone else for more than an hour, and so, naturally, I was very nervous about this extra attention.
As it turned out, I had nothing to be nervous about. Hunter was just interested in learning about the computer systems at the BN. He had arranged for the installation of a COMPASS terminal in his office with a printer. He wanted me to teach him how to use it to run inquiries. He also had the entire set of COMPASS manuals. I showed him where to find what he needed, which was basically the list of station numbers, and some of the more useful inquiries. I also explained about how each transaction affecting car movement created a historical record, and each day these records were added to the COMPASS Off-Line Data Base (COLDBASE). I interrogated COLDBASE to generate the DSOP report, plus many other custom reports, as needed, to support budgeting exercises, terminal studies, labor relation negotiations, and litigations, just to name a few. He grilled me in detail about each of the projects I had been involved in, and the sophistication of his questions demonstrated to me his in-depth knowledge of railroad operations. Despite myself, I was impressed. Very impressed.
It appeared he was also impressed with me. As our meeting was winding down, he asked me if I could work on only one thing, what would it be? I told him about an idea I had for monitoring how long it took to get a railcar from A to B. I thought it would be really useful for planning purposes, such as acquisition of rail cars and locomotives, and for detecting operational problems. Unbeknownst to me, I had indirectly hit upon a hot button for Hunter, service performance. He asked me to explain my idea, which I did. And then he asked me how long it would take me to program such a report. I told him it would take a couple of months, if I didn’t work on anything else. Hunter turned to Phil and declared, “For the next two months, Sue doesn’t work on anything else but this.” Phil responded, “Yes, sir.”
Following my meeting with Hunter, there was a flurry of activity. I sat in a cubicle less than 20 feet away from Hunter’s office. Hunter nearly always kept his door open so he could yell out to his admin; he had an aversion to using the intercom. I could hear Hunter berating people about things he was finding on the various reports he was pulling off COMPASS. When his targets acted confused, Hunter would yell, “It’s right here on your own damn report!” Several people stopped by my cubicle to find out where Hunter was getting all this information, and how they could get a COMPASS terminal installed in their offices.
Meanwhile, I was happily going about creating my new program, which Phil later dubbed “Major Corridor Service Measurement” (MCSM). It was very rudimentary. I created a table of the most dominant origin-destination pairs (routes) and established an acceptable time to travel each route based on historical performance. Then I created a weekly report to monitor each route and calculate an on-time performance, and more detailed reports to highlight the cause of each failure (i.e. bad orders, late trains, missed connections). I particularly enjoyed the time I spent with Hunter, pouring through the reports, and coming up with ideas to make them more informative. During these sessions, we would frequently get interrupted by phone calls. Hunter would put the caller on the speaker, so I could listen to both sides of the conversation. After making a decision and terminating the call, he would share with me additional information about the problem he was addressing, and explain why he made the decision he did. At one point he told me he really liked mentoring people, and since he didn’t have much time to do it, this was one of the techniques he used. I learned a great deal from him about how to diagnose and resolve business problems, such as methods for drilling down and looking for the root causes of a problem and then thinking “outside the box” when looking for a solution.
When writing this article, I initially decided to confine my story selections to those I witnessed firsthand, but there is one that I heard about from several people the day it happened that I decided to include. Every morning, Hunter held an operational meeting to go over the major events of the previous day, and discuss any outstanding issues. He had become frustrated with the number of times Train 62, a freight train with time sensitive cargo, had been delayed for what he deemed as inadequate reasons, so he issued an edict saying the next trainmaster to delay Train 62 would be fired. This seemed to work, at least for a time. Then one day Train 62 experienced a delay in Iowa. Hunter demanded during the morning operational meeting that they get the trainmaster in charge on the phone immediately, which someone did. As the story goes, after asking why the trainmaster delayed the train, the young trainmaster calmly explained the situation and why he made the decisions he did. Hunter’s reply before he hung up was a gruff, “Good decision.”
While in the office, Hunter was all work. He had an incredible memory and never took notes. He was known to ask people how they were doing with a particular task he had assigned to them when he ran into them in the hallway or on the elevator, even if the task had been assigned weeks before. It kept everyone on their toes. Nobody wanted to get caught unprepared. But on trips, he was more relaxed and shared some of his personal experiences. He had a real knack for finding the humor in almost any situation.
Unfortunately, my time spent working for Hunter was short-lived. In 1983, Thompson arranged to move the entire Operations Department, which included the Transportation Division, to Overland Park, Kansas. He declared that anyone not moving would be fired. My husband and I gave the move serious consideration, but ultimately decided to stay in Minnesota. Hunter provided me a very nice reference letter, which Phil wrote, and Hunter signed, and at that point I figured my railroad career was over.
In 1988, after a stint with a software development company and a consulting firm, I decided to start my own consulting business. I had barely made the decision when I got a call from Gordon Trafton, who worked for Hunter in Overland Park. He wanted to hire me to work on an updated version of MCSM, which would provide performance measurements across each region. I officially started Rathe, Inc. on April 1st, 1988, wondering just how foolish can a person be. Gordon arranged for me to use an empty office in BN’s Finance Department in St. Paul, and I completed all the work remotely.
As the MCSM upgrade project was nearing completion, Hunter flew to St. Paul to take me to lunch. He explained how he had been bugging upper management about the importance of providing consistent service during a time when corporations were embracing the concept of “just-in-time” inventory. He promoted his ideas even during recreational events, but I can’t recall if he said it was during handball or racquetball matches with his superiors. Anyway, he proudly told me that they had finally decided to give him a shot at making this happen at the BN. They made him Vice President of a new department called Service Design, and provided him with a budget to build his team. He had already hired three Directors, which included Gordon, and they were working on pulling their teams together, but he needed someone to do the programming. “We have to get this done, even if it means doing it with a stub pencil, but I’m hoping it will be easier to use a computer.” Naturally, I was very excited about this opportunity. So, there we were, at a very upscale restaurant, making drawings on cocktail napkins and discussing the features of this new system. It became clear from Hunter’s description, this new system would have to be much more robust than MCSM, by providing detailed plans for every possible origin and destination combination. To do this, I explained, it would require the creation of an algorithm with the ability to imitate the decision-making process that takes place at each terminal, and therefore, would need to be driven by a set of tables containing the necessary information for making these decisions.
It didn’t take long for Hunter to complete his team. He arranged for all of us to meet at a historic hotel in Wichita, where we pulled together our plans. On the first day, we worked straight through. On the second day, we met in the morning and played a round of golf in the afternoon. On the third day, we met briefly in the morning before heading home. Hunter was living in Chicago, and had commandeered a company jet. He asked me if I wanted a lift. I laughed and asked, “Isn’t that out of your way?” He assured me it wasn’t. He even arranged to have a limo meet me on the tarmac to take me to my car, since my car was parked at the main terminal of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and private planes flew into the Humphrey Terminal. During our flight we discussed the project in detail. He wanted to make sure I had all the information and assistance I needed to write the algorithm. I assured him I did.
Despite my assurances, it became pretty clear, early in the design process, I was missing a couple of key pieces. The TOPS based car inventory systems, such as COMPASS, relied on a block-tag structure. The destinations were assigned to a three-character alphanumeric block which was organized directionally across the network. Whereas, the tags were terminal specific and three digits, and were assigned based on destination block ranges. The terminal folks used the tags to determine which train block to sort the cars into. These tables were maintained in the COMPASS system. To mimic this logic, I needed to copy the blocking and tagging tables from COMPASS and reproduce the same search logic in my program. I put this logic into a separate module with the hopes that it could be replaced later with a less labor-intensive approach. (I had some ideas on how this could be done, but never got the opportunity to test them out.)
The second hiccup was the train information. There were no tables in existence describing which tags went on which trains and in which train blocks. There were some “train brief” documents describing the train plans, but they weren’t structured. So, I created computer tables to house this information to use in my trip plan algorithm, and I also used the tables to generate the train brief documents, so the folks supplying the information only had to record it in one place.
Once the block-tag logic and the train brief system were in place, I was able to complete the trip plan algorithm. Gordon named the computerized tools the “Service Management System (SMS).” Each week SMS interrogated the COLDBASE data for each completed rail car shipment, generated the plan, and calculated performance to plan. As with MCSM, I created detailed reports of each failure, so that Gordon’s folks could determine whether there was a problem with the algorithm, with information in the tables, or with execution of the plan, and then appropriate actions were taken. Creating the algorithm and the report programs was child’s play compared to the work being done by the Service Design group and the operational folks out in the field, who were tasked with translating this digitized effort into reliable on-time performance for BN’s customers. The Service Design personnel had a large conference room with white boards covering all of the walls. On these boards were hand written, color coded depictions of all the train information found in the train brief, so they could easily see the train schedules and train connections. They would pour through the performance reports, identify problems, tweak schedules and blocking strategies, and interrogate each change to make sure it wouldn’t cause a disruption somewhere else. And Hunter was relentless in his efforts to make everything work smoothly. To him precision scheduling was not just a philosophy; it was a discipline. It wasn’t enough to run the trains on-time. To get the cars to the customers on-time, the cars had to be switched at the customer sites during a specific shift at both origin and destination, and each planned connection at each terminal had to be successfully accomplished during the entire duration of the car’s trip across the network.
In an effort to get the entire railroad on board with this new strategy for providing consistent, on-time performance, which later in Hunter’s career got dubbed Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), Hunter arranged a junket for all the key members of the team to visit each of the six regional headquarters. We used one of the corporate jets, so that we could accomplish our mission in the course of a couple of weeks. The meetings would at times get bogged down with detailed discussions about things like should a certain block be switched onto the front or end of a train. After one of these lengthy conversations, Hunter called for a break. During the break he sought me out and asked me why I was scribbling away on a legal pad, taking so many notes on such a mind-numbing subject. I blushed and responded I wasn’t taking notes, I was writing code for the trip plan algorithm. He chuckled and shook his head. For some reason, I was a frequent source of amusement to him.
Following our meeting in Denver, our flight out was delayed by bad weather. While we were waiting, Hunter confessed to being nervous about flying. I admitted that I too was unnerved by flying, especially during take-offs and landings. I think our flight crew must have heard part of our conversation. As we were flying into Seattle the next afternoon the pilot invited me to sit in the jump seat just outside the cockpit for the landing. The jump seat was normally used by a flight attendant, but the BN had stopped using attendants on the corporate jets to reduce costs. I took them up on their offer, and was amazed by the experience. Watching a landing from the front of the plane is entirely different than seeing it from a side window. The sky was perfectly clear and brilliantly blue that day. Mt. Rainier was majestic. I had never seen it before while flying into Seattle, because of cloud cover. I was so engrossed, I completely forgot about being nervous. Plus, witnessing the pilots go through their landing checklist and communications with the tower, gave me a real sense of how careful and expert these folks were. And the experience provided me with a great deal of reassurance about the safety of flying.
On the flight from Seattle to Minneapolis the next evening, I mentioned my experience to Hunter and suggested he try it. He shook his head and gave me an emphatic, “Nope.” As we were getting close to the Twin Cities, I looked up from the novel I was reading, and noticed Hunter was not in his normal seat. I asked one the guys what happened to him. He pointed toward the front of the plane and said Hunter was talking to the pilots. I leaned forward in my seat and looked up the aisle, and saw Hunter strapped in the jump seat talking with the pilots as they were preparing to land. I couldn’t help but smile.
During the development of the SMS tools, I made frequent trips to Overland Park to discuss issues and strategies. One morning while I was in Overland Park, Hunter asked to meet with me. He and Gordon explained that they were about to have a meeting with some folks from a major airline, who were proposing to sell their real-time trip planning algorithm to the BN, along with programming help to adapt it from “passengers on planes” to “railcars on trains.” On the surface, it sounded like a pretty nifty way of integrating a trip planning tool into BN’s COMPASS system. Hunter wanted me to attend the meeting and provide feedback. I asked, “Am I allowed to ask questions?” and without any hesitation Hunter said, “Sure.” Gordon also mentioned I would have to leave the meeting when they started talking about the price tag.
Gordon and I arrived to the meeting at the last minute, and I was surprised by the number of people in attendance. It was a large conference room with close to 20 people seated at the table, and another 20 people seated in chairs against the walls. There were only two chairs left for Gordon and me, and they were on opposite sides of the room. Hunter was at the head of the table with a man I was soon to learn was a vice president from the airline. An airline representative got up and explained how their system worked and how it could be adapted to the railroad. But he didn’t mention an interface with COMPASS, which caused me concern. I knew most of the people in the room, and I was sure many of them also had to recognize this serious flaw, but for some reason they were all remaining quiet. I was confused by this, so I raised my hand and asked, “Are you including an interface with COMPASS to get the shipment information?” The rep calmly responded, “No, this information will be entered by clerical personnel.” I maintained an unruffled demeanor, even though I was aghast. I quietly took a pen and paper from my purse and did some quick calculations based on the number of shipments originating on the BN each day and the time I figured it would take to key in this information. While I was doing my calculations, the rep had continued on to other topics. After double checking my numbers, I raised my hand again. “I hate to belabor this point, but I just did a quick calculation, and without an automated interface, I estimate the BN would need to hire at least 1200 clerks to key information into this system.” At that point the room erupted with conversation. All the people who I had expected to speak up earlier, suddenly started talking about other problems with the proposal. A guy sitting to the right of me, whispered angrily in my ear. “Hunter really wants this. What in the hell are you doing?” I thought to myself, “Is that why everybody was being so quiet? They think this is a pet project of Hunter’s?” As things started to quiet down, Gordon walked over and whispered in my left ear that it was time for me to leave. They were going to start discussing the price. As I was gathering up my possessions, the guy to my right whispered with satisfaction, “You’re in trouble now.” He must have thought Gordon had ejected me for cause from the meeting.
I left the room and sat down in a chair in the hallway, about 10 feet away from the doorway. I was hoping to catch Gordon when he came out, so I could query him about what was really going on. The meeting broke up about 20 minutes later. Several people stopped by and thanked me for speaking up. They explained that the guy I was sitting next to was spearheading the project for the BN and had told people in advance of the meeting that Hunter really wanted this system. This was not the first time someone had used Hunter’s name to intimidate others. But in this case, was it really true? Had I somehow embarrassed Hunter? I missed seeing Gordon to ask, and had to leave to attend another meeting I had scheduled.
Later that afternoon, I had a break in my schedule and decided to stop by Hunter’s office to face the music. His door was open, so I peeked my head inside. He looked up at me, and I meekly asked, “So, am I fired?” He burst out laughing and waved me toward a guest chair. He then told me he went to lunch with the airline VP and they had a nice chat. Hunter asked him straight out, “If you were me, would you buy this system?” According to Hunter, the airline VP replied emphatically, “Hell, no.”
As it turned out, this would be my last face-to-face meeting with Hunter prior to his being spirited away to the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) in May of 1989. I continued working on SMS, as well as picking up other projects from various departments at the BN. My consulting business expanded to the point where I had about a dozen IT specialists working for me, and about 90% of my total revenue was from the BN. In late 1993, Rathe, Inc. was bought out by the BN in what my husband still refers to as a “hostile takeover.” As part of the arrangement, I agreed to stay on with the BN for at least a year to help with the transition of projects and personnel.
In September of 1994, I took a couple days of vacation to go to Chicago with a good friend, Karen, to attend a large computer convention. I discovered the IC headquarters was just a few blocks from our hotel, so on a whim I made a call to Hunter to see if we could drop by and say “hello.” I dialed the IC switchboard and asked for Mr. Harrison. I was connected to his admin. I explained to her I was in town for the next couple of days and was hoping I could stop by for a few minutes. She took down my name and number and said she would call me back. A few minutes later she returned my call and told me, “Mr. Harrison had me clear his afternoon schedule. Can you come by at 2:00?” Karen was really impressed by this, and was even more impressed, as was I, when we saw a sign in the lobby indicating Hunter was the CEO of the IC. I hadn’t been aware of his promotion.
As we entered his large and elegant office overlooking Lake Michigan, Hunter rose and came around his desk to give me a hug and shake hands with Karen. Then we all sat down and for the next hour or so he regaled us with stories about what he had been up to. He told us about how high the operating ratio was when he arrived at the IC (in the high 90s), and how they had been making aggressive changes to bring it down, like eliminating the double hump at the Chicago Yard. He was amused by the panicked resistance he got from the folks at the terminal, so he came up with a plan to wean them off using the two humps, one at a time. “I told them we’ll just pretend they’re not there and see how it goes.” Once they were comfortable with not using them, the humps were physically removed. The IC also changed the double main line from Chicago to New Orleans to single track with strategically located sidings, and then stockpiled the excess rails and ties to be used later. He talked about the disappointing day the IC went public. “Don’t ever schedule an IPO on a day when the U.S. is going to war,” he quipped. He described a new technique he called “crew swapping.” where he had trains meet halfway between two crew change points and then transfer the crews between trains, so both crews would end up at their home terminal. Hunter really liked the symmetry of it, saving the company the cost of overnight stays away from home, while providing more time for the crews to spend with their families. But it did require precision scheduling and execution.
He asked me about how things were going at the BN. I told him that Gordon continued to do an excellent job running the Service Design group, and that I was now working for the BN in the IT department. At that point he mentioned that in his quest to lower the operating ratio, he had about run out of “low-hanging fruit.” And further, he was really frustrated with the lack of any useful information coming from the IC’s IT department. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in moving to Chicago and working for the IC. I was totally taken by surprise. I sincerely thanked him for the offer, but explained I had made a one-year commitment to the BN and I still had a few months to go. He told me if I ever changed my mind to give him a call.
A few months before, the BN had announced a merger with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF), and it was becoming very evident it wouldn’t be long before my job would be moving to Ft. Worth. My husband and I discussed our options, and we decided a move to Chicago was preferable to a move to Ft. Worth, especially since I intensely disliked my job in the IT department of the BN, and working for Hunter again sounded downright heavenly. So, after I had reached the one-year mark with the BN, I gave Hunter a call. I again got his admin and she remembered me. She said Hunter was out of the office for a few days. I asked her to have him call me. She laughed, “Oh, my dear, you know perfectly well, Mr. Harrison is just horrible at returning calls. So, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll set up a time next week when I know he’ll be in his office, and I’ll be sure to not schedule any other meetings for that time. Then you can call me and I’ll put you through to him.”
So, that’s what we did. Once I had him on the phone, I quickly got to the point. “I’ve decided I’d like to come to work for you at the IC in Chicago. Are you still interested?” There was no response. The line remained dead quiet for at least a minute. I suspected he had muted the call and was talking to someone else in his office. Finally, I said, “Sir, are you still there?” He responded by saying, “Yes, but you have me speechless. I never figured I’d be able to blast you out of Minnesota.” He went on to tell me he’d have someone contact me.
The next day I received a call from an HR person. They set me up with plane tickets and arranged for me to meet with John McPherson, the Sr. Operating VP, at a conference room at the O’Hare airport. I liked John right away. He was very congenial and professional, and totally on board with what Hunter was trying to accomplish at the IC. From a railroad operations perspective, we had similar philosophies and interests, but when I started asking about what types of computer systems and software they used, his response was an apologetic, “IBM? Does that sound right?” John also mentioned he asked Hunter to describe me in just one word. Hunter used the word “Manipulator.” John could tell I was somewhat insulted by the description and he laughed, and then went on to explain. “He said you could manipulate data like no one he has ever seen.” A few days later I had my offer letter for Director of Special Projects working directly for John. I accepted the offer without knowing if I would have any familiar tools to accomplish my mission. All I knew was I was going to be working for Hunter, and my job was going to be exciting and fun again. Yay!
My new job was located at the operational headquarters in Homewood, IL. My office was situated in a section of the building that was also occupied by John’s office, a waiting area where John’s admin, Joan, had her desk, and a small conference room that could hold about 12 people.
After being shown around on my first day, Joan helped me get a meeting set up with the three Directors of the IT department for later in the day. I quizzed them about their systems and tools. Their answers couldn’t have been more exciting. They had an IBM mainframe with an OS operating system (same as BN). They had SAS installed (my favorite programming language). And the Union Pacific was renting them access to their online inventory system, which was derived from the same TOPS-based system as COMPASS, from which they sent daily historical records to the IC computer for accounting purposes, similar to COLDBASE. The IT folks also told me about a crew calling system that had recently been installed at the IC, and the IT department was getting daily downloads from that system as well. I was practically drooling over the wealth of data. By the end of the day, they had me set up with a user ID and access. And I hit the ground running.
By the next day, I had my strategy laid out, and a meeting was scheduled for the following week in Hunter’s conference room in downtown Chicago to formally present my plan. At the start of the meeting, Hunter introduced me to his senior operations personnel, and pointed out that I had at one time been a yardmaster for the BN. He knew it gave me credibility to the operating folks, while letting them know I understood the railroading lingo. I wasn’t just an IT geek. I began by talking about the various reports I planned to create to assist them in daily operational decisions and showing them examples of each one on the overhead projector. These reports would include a situational report to replace their manually prepared report that was used at their daily morning meeting, a DSOP look-alike (that Hunter dearly missed), plus a crew utilization report. Then I shifted gears and started to talk about planning tools. As I started explaining about scheduling tools, my audience got restless and start complaining; saying things like, “We don’t need all this crap. We already know what’s going on. We don’t need computers to tell us how to do our jobs.” Hunter blew up. He pounded on the table to get everyone’s attention. He said things like, “This is going to happen whether you like it are not, so you’d better get on board now. I expect each of you to help Sue with whatever she needs. I don’t want to listen to any more complaints.” The meeting ended right then. I had not completed my presentation, and with the exception of Hunter and John, I was facing the glaring faces of nearly a dozen very angry and petulant men. Oh, boy.
Over the course of the next 18 months, the operations’ folks got to know me and came to appreciate the reports and planning tools I generated for them. I even got a few apologies for that first meeting. The scheduling tool (that brought that first meeting to a screeching halt) immediately identified the reason for the Amtrak trains running late. We ran two Amtrak trains each day between Chicago and New Orleans, one northbound and one southbound. They were scheduled to cross paths in southern Illinois at a location where there were no sidings nearby. I told John, “Even if you ran only Amtrak trains, it is physically impossible to have both of them operate on time.” John flew to Washington DC and met with Amtrak to renegotiate the schedules. Once that was accomplished the operations folks were able to run the Amtrak trains on-time and were no longer harassed on a daily basis by Hunter. Once we had a workable schedule for the Amtrak trains, we layered on the intermodal and freight trains to make sure their schedules were not in conflict with each other or with the Amtrak trains. This exercise also helped the operations people identify more opportunities for crew swapping.
The operations’ guys also learned that in my presence, Hunter was more pleasant and less likely to yell and use profanities. He was a Southern gentleman, after all. (He frequently called me “Ma’am.”) So, I was often invited to attend operational meetings. They even invented excuses for having me there. But I think Hunter caught on to the ploy. At one point I overheard him say in an ominous tone, “No, we don’t need Sue for this.” I found it ironic that it really didn’t matter. My office was right next to the conference room, and I could hear his shouting very clearly through the paper-thin walls.
I think Hunter was satisfied with what I was accomplishing. But he was not one to lavish praise on his employees. He did tell me at one point that he was creating an award of $5,000 to give to anyone who came up with an idea to save the company a substantial amount of money, “over and above what was expected from their job.” When my eyes lit up, he chuckled. “Forget it. You’ll never be considered. My expectations for you are so high, there is absolutely no way you could ever exceed them.”
I finished developing every report and planning tool on my list, and was running out of ideas for how I could further contribute in my current capacity. I mentioned this to John, and he must have mentioned it to some other executives, because it was shortly after my conversation with John, I received a call from the CFO, Dale Phillips. He wanted to take me to lunch. While at lunch, he offered me a job running the IT department. The three directors of the IT department reported directly to him, but with Y2K looming, he felt he needed a fulltime person to run the department. I told him I was interested in managing the programmers, but I didn’t know anything about managing a computer room operation. He felt confident that I was up to the challenge and by the time the meal ended, I had a new job.
Dale had an aggressive plan for dealing with Y2K. He wanted to move all of the financial applications onto a PeopleSoft platform instead of remediating the old COBOL mainframe programs currently being used. I told him we needed to upgrade all of our non-mainframe networking infrastructure to accomplish this. It would be an astronomical job, and there was no way we could hire all the specialists we would need to finish everything before 2000. Rather, we should contract out a bunch of the work, and I further suggested we work out a deal with EDS for them to provide us with “just-in-time” personnel to fulfill our needs throughout this entire revamping of our computer systems. Dale like this idea and worked with EDS and our legal department to create a contract that would provide us ~15 bodies per month with various skill sets, as needed, to supplement our IT staff. This was a new business model for EDS, and they were eager to try it. The final step was to get Hunter’s approval. Dale arranged a two-day trip to Dallas. Hunter, John, Dale, the head of the legal department, and I boarded the company jet first thing in the morning, and flew non-stop to the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport. A limo awaited us, courtesy of EDS, and we were driven to another part of the airport where EDS kept their corporate helicopter. We were flown by helicopter to the lawn of the EDS headquarters in Plano, TX. We spent the rest of the day listening to their sales pitch and discussing the contract. That evening we were taken to a very nice restaurant at the top of one of the tallest buildings in downtown Dallas. The next morning, we were given a tour of many of the innovative technical projects EDS was working on, just in case Hunter had any other business needs requiring high-tech solutions. As we were concluding our visit, Hunter started asking specifics about the contract. It seemed to be a very good deal for the IC, but he wanted to make sure it was an equally good deal for EDS. He explained, “I want you love me in five years just as much as you love me today.” Hunter truly believed in making deals that benefited everyone involved.
Following the execution of the contract, we began putting together the plan with EDS and bringing in the personnel. The EDS project leader wanted to put together a presentation to give to Hunter to describe what we had planned. They asked me to critique the presentation. As tactfully as I could, I let them know their presentation was very boring and would not keep Hunter’s attention for more than 15 minutes, let alone an hour. They ignored my suggestions, and when they did present it to Hunter, I had to admit I was wrong. Only 10 minutes elapsed before Hunter interrupted them. He looked at me, and asked, “Bottom line. Are you confident you’re going to be able to get this done?” I responded, “Yes, sir.” At that point, he slapped his hands on the table and said, “Good.” Then he got up and walked out. (And everything did proceed swimmingly. All the Y2K work was completely by early 1999, and the century rolled over without a hitch.)
In February, 1998, the Canadian National and the IC announced their merger, which became effective on July 1, 1999. Although I did not want to leave the IC, I also did not want to move to Montreal. Hopefully, Hunter got some satisfaction from the fact that he was able to get me to move once. I did do a bit of consulting for the CN-IC following the merger to help smooth the transition, and I did a consulting project for the Accounting Department of the BNSF. But the railroading industry was not providing me with any interesting and/or new challenges, so I decided to go back to school. I finished undergraduate degrees in Genetics and Biochemistry, and was working on my PhD in Cancer Biology, when I last saw Hunter at Gordon’s retirement party in Chicago in 2010. Hunter was between gigs and I could tell he was restless. I wasn’t surprised when I later heard he had taken the CEO position at the Canadian Pacific.
I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite Hunter stories. I will be forever grateful for the time I got to work with him. He taught me so much. If I had to describe Hunter in one word, I couldn’t do it. But here are some words that do come to mind and they cover a broad spectrum: brilliant, innovative, confident, demanding, tough, loud, impatient, mentoring, fair, honest, loyal, fun, and enchanting. I think he’d laugh at that last one.