Shares of CSX Corporation rebounded to close up 1.25 percent Monday in the wake of CEO and railroad turnaround specialist Hunter Harrison's passing on Saturday. Shares had early fallen near 2 percent in early trade.
The executive was renowned in the industry for his ability to save struggling freight railroads, having spent years reforming two of Canada's largest railways before taking the helm at CSX in March.
The company said on Friday that Harrison was placed on medical leave. A day later Harrison died at age 73. He had been suffering from an undisclosed medical condition that forced him to work from home some days and use an oxygen machine at times, according to the Wall Street Journal.
"Harrison's legendary ability to redesign a rail network with his Precision Scheduled Railroading model created the two most efficient operations in North America and we believe his legacy will continue at CSX," J.P. Morgan analyst Brian Ossenbeck wrote on Sunday. "When those transformational changes stressed the CSX network to a near meltdown in August, service issues that would have crippled the old system for over a year only lasted a few months. This experience built immediate trust in Harrison and faith in the PSR model which continues to operate more efficiently than U.S. peers."
Central to the PSR model is a set of principles designed to improve operating efficiency, including minimizing car dwelling times, reducing car classifications, and balancing train movements by direction. Harrison's model was central in turning around the Canadian National Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway, now two of the most successful systems in North America.
Though Harrison and CSX hit roadblocks (both customer and regulatory) throughout the CEO's first few months at the company, the chief's role in redesigning the company has already set a new trajectory for the railway.
"We continue to point out that CSX has the highest degree of network control of any U.S. rail, providing a foundation to deliver the consistently high service levels critical for PSR," added Ossenbeck. "CSX also operates the lowest track densities which provide scope for improving operational efficiencies through rationalizing the network and improving balance in the system."
But J.P. Morgan wasn't alone in its optimistic outlook on CSX. Credit Suisse analyst Allison Landry noted that acting CEO Jim Foote is likely keen on continuing Harrison's work.
"We think there is a reason why Mr. Harrison chose Mr. Foote as his #2 at CSX — and we believe we got a glimpse of that at the Credit Suisse Industrials conference," wrote Landry on Friday. "Management emphasized that there were still plenty of opportunities to improve the network from the previous system of comingling intermodal and merchandise freight to implementing scheduled railroading — which will drive down costs and improve profitability. We remind investors that Jim Foote was a key architect of what we now know as Canadian National's highly successful and industry leading intermodal franchise."
Though the company's stock has sold off since Friday, J.P. Morgan and Credit Suisse encouraged investors to stick with the shares. Ossenbeck reiterated his buy rating, as well as his $63 price target, which represents 19 percent upside from Friday's close. Landry kept CSX at overweight and reiterated her $61 price target, or 15 percent upside.
Over the past 12 months, shares of CSX have soared roughly 47 percent.