A shareholder bid to have turnaround specialist Hunter Harrison replace CSX Corp.’s chief executive appears headed toward a deal, analysts said, as a deadline looms Friday for nominating dissident directors.
Harrison, who has improved results at three railroads, teamed with activist investor Paul Hilal in an attempt to unseat CSX Chief Executive Officer Mike Ward. The shares have soared 29 percent since CSX was confirmed as Harrison’s target Jan. 19. Negotiations between the Harrison team and the Jacksonville, Florida-based carrier have been shrouded in silence since.
“We haven’t heard a peep,” said John Larkin, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. “I would presume they are still negotiating. That increases the probability of a friendly deal.”
Under CSX bylaws, Hilal and Harrison have until the close of business on Friday to submit candidates for the board, which will be elected by shareholders at the railroad’s annual meeting. Last year, the gathering was May 11.
Representatives for CSX, Hilal and Harrison declined to comment.
Harrison stepped down early as CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. last month. The 72-year-old forfeited $90 million in compensation and reached a new noncompete accord to free himself up to run CSX. Harrison in 2012 teamed with billionaire investor Bill Ackman to take over and turn around the Canadian carrier. He now wants to repeat the feat with Hilal, of Mantle Ridge.
“I think no news is probably good news since either party does not feel compelled to make their case in the public domain,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Lee Klaskow.
If a dissident slate is nominated, that could presage a hostile campaign similar to what Hilal ran as Ackman’s point man for Canadian Pacific. Talks might continue even if the board candidates are submitted, however.
“The Friday deadline is probably not cast in stone,” Larkin said.
Some CSX shareholders, including Neuberger Berman Group, have voiced support for Harrison. The railroader lowered Canadian Pacific’s operating ratio—a widely watched measure of railroad efficiency in which a lower number is better—below 59 percent last year from 83 percent in 2012. Net income more than tripled over the period to C$1.6 billion ($1.2 billion).
The timing of the CSX effort works in Harrison’s favor. Ward, 66, had been set to retire and agreed in September 2015 to stay on an additional three years after would-be successor Oscar Munoz abruptly left to run United Airlines.