Former CN Chief Launches Academy

By Bill Dries

When E. Hunter Harrison speaks to the first class of the new leadership academy Friday, March 9, at the University of Memphis Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute, it will be the first step on a path to a different kind of front office.

The Freight Transportation Leadership Academy bills itself as “the only executive leadership program that requires a hard hat.”

“There are other universities that do some kind of continuing education program in freight education,” said Sean Ellis, associate director of the academy. “But none of them take you out and let you see, smell and touch what happens. Several of the others that we looked at, it wouldn’t matter if you’re in Denver, Chicago or Timbuktu, you’re just in a conference room learning. Ours will be pretty unique.”

Harrison, a Memphis native, is the debut industry leader to speak at the once-a-month courses over a four-month period.

Harrison is the former CEO of Canadian National Railway Co., which renamed the company’s switching yard after him. Harrison started his career in rail in Memphis in 1963 as a carman-oiler on the Frisco Railroad.

Harrison was chief operating officer and then CEO of Illinois Central before the north-south rail system was acquired by CN in 1998. After the merger, he took the same path to the leadership of CN before retiring in late 2009.

The leadership academy with separate monthly sessions on rail, river, aviation and road movement of freight was his idea.

“Hunter Harrison gave us this as a challenge to accomplish,” Ellis said. “He used to have something at CN called Hunter Camps. They would identify up-and-coming leaders within CN and they would spend a week with him and he would teach them what he thought about railroading and transportation and leadership.”

The CN-Hunter Harrison Institute for Intermodal Safety and Emergency Preparedness is one of the affiliated centers that already works with the U of M’s IFTI. Those working with the leadership academy specifically include Dunavant Global Logistics Group, International Paper, Schneider National and CH Robinson.

The three-day sessions each month will include some conventional workshops and there will be discussions about the impact of railroad mergers on the cost of moving freight as well as Carrier Safety Administration standards and their impact on trucking.

“You’ll see a hump yard in motion. You’re going to climb on a locomotive and see what it looks like and see how large it is and what it looks like when you’re standing in one and looking down track,” Ellis said. “You’ll go with the sort at FedEx. You’re going to go out on a towboat and see what it’s like to pick up a barge. … It’s going to let people get out of the classroom and see freight moving and see how it works. There’s a lot of leadership woven through there.”

The first session, which began Thursday, has 10 people. The hope is to expand the fall and spring sessions to a maximum of 25 participants who pay $5,000 each.

The participants could include those working directly in the industry as well as attorneys who have transportation law in their practices or logistics chiefs at corporations.

The April sessions will focus on river freight, and the industry leader featured will be Ted Prince, the former CEO of K-Line.

May’s topic is airfreight and June’s is road.

Part of the out-of-classroom experience will be a look at the city’s busiest and most congested freight artery, Lamar Avenue, which is a link between road and rail as well as air freight logistics.

“It is geared to be a national program,” Ellis said. “We will have a separate one that will probably have an international flavor to it.”

The international academy is being organized with officials of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which has been active in recent years promoting trade between Memphis businesses and industries and foreign countries.