Double H Time
A book recounts Hunter Harrison’s remarkable life
Hunter Harrison relaxes at Double H Farm, as part of Ridgefield Magazine’s 2013 fashion feature.
Photo Kristen Jensen
Hunter Harrison was a big man in many ways. Tall and stocky, with a deep, friendly voice, he was as industrious at play as at work. Both he and wife Jeannie came from modest backgrounds in Memphis. However, a career in the railroad business transported them geographically and financially from when they married 55 years ago to where they were at the time of Hunter’s death in December. As a four-time CEO in the railroad business, Harrison traveled by jet between work in Canada and homes in Florida and Ridgefield, and horse shows around the world—and single-handedly re-energized the railroad industry.
Home here was Double H Farm. “A friend mentioned this place to us, even though it wasn’t for sale,” Hunter told me the first time I visited Double H in 2007. “It’s such a beautiful property. When I get up in the morning and look out over it, I just can’t believe it. Coming from my background, our background, neither one of us ever dreamed we could have something like this.”
The next time I visited Harrison at Double H, he had recently retired as CEO of Canadian National Railway and was considering jumping back into the business. He had been content with retirement—spending time on his sprawling farm and a home in Wellington, Florida. Then, he said, Pershing Square Capital head Bill Ackman called and said he wanted Harrison to become CEO of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which Pershing Capital had just purchased a huge stake in. “You can’t afford me,” Harrison told Ackman. “Then he threw out a number that I couldn’t turn down,” Harrison said.
Last year, after a brief illness, Harrison died at the age of 73, as head of CSX railway, leaving behind a lasting legacy, his wife Jeannie, and children. Prior to his death, he had provided author Howard Green access to him and his rec-ords. The result is Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison, to be released in September.
Writes Green in this thorough, readable, and expansive biography: “Never accepting the status quo, Harrison not only renovated established railroads, he forced an entire industry to shape up. The shipment of goods and commodities by rail in North American is arguable better because of him. … Harrison made the trains run on time and, in turn, created approximately $50 billion in shareholder value.”
This is ultimately a business book, but reveals much about Harrison the person, which is who he was in Ridgefield.
While on his farm, he was never the “mad as hell CEO” squeezing efficiencies out of railroad assets. He was gracious, engaging, and generous. Some ten years ago, I invited Harrison to join an oversight committee of the Boys & Girls Club of Ridgefield. The first meeting was at the club on Governor Street one weekday afternoon. An hour and half before the meeting, his secretary called to confirm the meeting, since Harrison was about the leave his office—in Toronto. Sure enough, 90 minutes later, in he walked into the Boys & Girls Club—sitting down, biting into a cookie, and saying: “How can I help?”