The Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal

CN: a trade and transportation highway across North America

Last April 25, the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal held a lunchtime talk that differed from the usual format. Instead of giving a traditional speech, Jean-Jacques Ruest, CN’s President and Chief Executive Officer, participated in a conversation with John Parisella. Together, they reflected on the important legacy that CN has successfully built over time. The discussion also focused on the company's ability to maintain its position as a rail transportation leader.

The two men were first introduced by Sean Finn, CN's Executive Vice-President, Corporate Services and Chief Legal Officer. He took the opportunity to mark the celebration of CN's 100th anniversary.

 “It’s not about celebrating the past. Today, CN is more important than ever and will continue to drive innovation. The world is moving towards a future of infinite possibilities. We are leading the way,” said Sean Finn.

Here are some key takeaways from this interview.

A moving celebration, specially designed for the occasion

In his presentation, Mr. Finn stressed the importance the company places on maintaining good relations with communities across the country, particularly Indigenous communities.

“CN is an open-air company that operates throughout America 24/7. These communities are our neighbours!” he said.

The centennial celebrations, which also coincide with the 25th anniversary of CN's privatization, were designed for all Canadians to enjoy. Over the next 18 months, a “container village” will travel across Canada and the United States. Throughout its journey, it will entertain, inform and inspire audiences of all ages. It will tell CN's rich history through the unforgettable experiences it will provide.

Privatization: a risky choice

When asked why he decided to pursue a career with CN, Mr. Ruest, an industrial chemist by training, said he was inspired by the major change CN undertook when it was privatized in 1995. Initially led by Paul Tellier, the decision to privatize this Crown corporation was risky, but ultimately successful. The company, headquartered in Montréal since its inception, has grown from a market capitalization value of $2.2 billion to $91.7 billion.

«   “Privatization forced CN to leave behind the safe framework provided by the government, to be autonomous and bold and innovative in finding ways to thrive,” Ruest said.

According to him, it was a watershed moment for the company's success. The CN team quickly developed a taste for risk and a passion for competition. From one success to the next, CN’s ambition grew. In the end, this fearlessness has enabled it to position itself as a leader among the seven major rail companies in North America.

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Investment and innovation

When Mr. Parisella asked him about CN's challenge to remain relevant in a constantly changing world, especially as a company founded 100 years ago, Mr. Ruest was emphatic:

 “The danger for mature industries is to stay in their comfort zone and not innovate. It is crucial to integrate technology into our operations and optimize the intermodality of transportation modes,” said Mr. Ruest.

Investing in infrastructure is essential to remain a global leader. CN has made large-scale investments recently. Over the past two years, nearly 25% of the company's gross revenues have been reinvested in the network, mainly in Greater Montréal. These amounts total $3.5 billion in 2018 and $3.9 billion in 2019.

Mr. Ruest also added that the presence of fierce competitors is positive for CN. The stronger the competition, the more companies are driven to innovate and implement management styles that take them out of traditional paradigms.

Social acceptability and impact on the community

CN's President and CEO noted that one of CN's keys to success is to adequately prepare its next generation. CN makes it a point of honour to be actively involved in taking on more young interns.

“CN's success is not based solely on the effort of a single leader. It is the result of a combination of factors, people, employees, suppliers, customers and communities,” added Mr. Ruest.
“CN is a trade highway that generates a lot of wealth and jobs. The next time you see a train, take a moment to think about what it carries. Realize that this train represents jobs in the manufacturing sector, that it represents jobs in remote areas. This train is the reflection of our economic activity,” concluded Mr. Ruest.
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