Florida-based railroad CSX Corp. says president and CEO Hunter Harrison — who headed both major Canadian railways — is on medical leave due to what it calls "unexpected complications from a recent illness."
Shares of CSX tumbled in Friday trading, sliding more than eight per cent to $52.59 US on Nasdaq.
The company did not disclose the nature of that illness but his interim replacement, chief operating officer Jim Foote, told analysts that Harrison had made "astonishing" progress in changing the CSX corporate culture.
Harrison, who is in his early 70s, was hired by CSX in March after several years leading Canada's two biggest railways — Montreal-based Canadian National and Calgary-based Canadian Pacific.
He left CP Rail earlier this year to join CSX, a railway that faces challenges similar to those he tackled at the Canadian rails.
He was credited with generating significant profits at both Canadian rail companies by employing tighter train schedules and lean expenses through a management philosophy known as "precision scheduled railroading."
Foote — who worked with Harrison for 11 years at CN Rail and joined him at CSX a few months ago — says he fell ill after a multi-day training exercise for the company's managers.
"Beyond that, out of respect to his family, that's all we can say at this time," Foote said.
Questions about Harrison's health were raised earlier this year when the Wall Street Journal reported that Harrison often works from home and occasionally uses oxygen because of an undisclosed health issue.
Foote said that Harrison had already instilled his management philosophy and strategic vision at CSX and "I do not see any reason to diminish our expectations concerning the pace and magnitude of our future progress."
Foote has been CSX's chief operating officer since late October, a role that is often seen as the second-highest management rank after CEO.