Christopher Hohn, whose TCI Fund Management Ltd. launched a vote contest to replace CN chairman Robert Pace, chief executive Jean-Jacques Ruest and other board members, said Monday that he would transform the railway into a “low-cost, high-service” freight carrier that can compete with trucks and reduce emissions while boosting profits.
Mr. Hohn has named rail veterans Gilbert Lamphere and Jim Vena as his picks for chairman and CEO, respectively, in addition to three board nominees. CN has scheduled a March 22 vote for the contest.
Mr. Hohn, CN’s second-biggest shareholder at 5.2 per cent, is unhappy with the railway’s financial and stock market performance, as well as its failed bid to buy U.S. railroad Kansas City Southern.
In a news release and on the newly launched website CN Back on Track, TCI renewed its criticisms of CN’s leadership.
“The board has been responsible for multiple corporate governance failures, including permitting a brain-drain of high quality operators to leave CN, sanctioning the failed bid for Kansas City Southern, establishing a board that has no meaningful railroad experience,” TCI said.
CN responded to TCI’s campaign in September by releasing a plan to buy back shares, sell its non-rail divisions and slash costs and 1,050 jobs in a bid to boost operating income by $700-million. TCI called this new tack “knee-jerk” and accused the railway’s leadership of lacking the ability to enact the turnaround.
CN declined to comment.
Cameron Doerksen, a National Bank stock analyst, said TCI’s release offered little new information. “While we suspect that Jim Vena would be a capable CEO, the TCI material is short on specifics as to what changes might be enacted to improve CN’s operations and financial performance,” Mr. Doerksen said.
He called CN’s plan to boost income by $700-million “ambitious” given that $500-million would come from cost reductions. “The plan envisions a $250-million reduction in purchased services, much of which would come from eliminating consultants, which begs the question as to why CN was spending this amount of money on apparently unneeded services to begin with,” Mr. Doerksen said in a research note. He noted that CN has several months to reach its financial targets before the shareholder vote.
TCI’s nominees as CN directors are Allison Landry, a transportation analyst and director at XPO Logistics; Rob Knight, a former finance chief at Union Pacific Railroad; and Paul Miller, a former CN executive.
Mr. Vena is not part of the voting slate but would be appointed CEO if Mr. Hohn has his way.
Christian Wetherbee, a Citigroup analyst, said TCI’s newest critique of CN left him wanting more details on the hedge fund’s plans for CN.
“TCI’s slide deck outlining its strategic plan did a good job of highlighting CN’s financial underperformance and offered valid criticism of its handling of the KCS merger,” Mr. Wetherbee said. “However, the deck stopped short of providing detailed financial projections of what CN could look like under new board oversight and Jim Vena’s leadership. We view this as a crucial step in the process to win shareholder support for change at the board and of the CEO.”
He said it is possible TCI and Mr. Hohn plan to offer investors more information ahead of the boardroom vote.
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