CN launches new strategic plan as activist investor seeks changes

MONTREAL — Canadian National Railway Co. announced a new strategic plan on Friday as it looks to move past its failed bid for a U.S. railway and stave off criticism from an activist investor looking to make leadership changes at the railway.

The Montreal-based railway said that as part of the plan it expects in 2022 to reduce capital spending to 17 per cent of revenue, increase operating income by $700 million, and boost efficiency to achieve an operating ratio of 57 per cent for next year.

"We feel comfortable with the targets that we have, I’m confident about the team, I’m very energized about doing it," said chief executive Jean-Jacques Ruest on an investor call Friday.

"I intend to see this plan through, all the way to the end," he added.

His comments come as British-based investor TCI Fund Management Ltd. pushes for changes at the railway that include a proposal to replace Ruest.

TCI said Monday it intends to ask for a special meeting of CN shareholders for the purpose of "refreshing" the railway's board by adding four members that it has nominated, and has proposed Jim Vena, former chief operating officer at CN, as a potential replacement for Ruest.

The investor has been a vocal critic of CN's attempted takeover of the Kansas City Southern railway, which it lost this week to Calgary-based rival Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

Ruest looked to defend CN's attempt to take over KCS, saying that it learned about growth opportunities during the bid, and it came away US$700 million richer thanks to a break fee.

"I know a lot has been said lately about the wisdom of our bid and the quality of our team, and I’m here to tell you that we fully appreciate our bid for KCS may not have been in CP’s interest, but it has absolutely served CN’s interest, despite the disappointing outcome."

He said the railway would focus on doing what's right for shareholders, including the resumption of share buybacks with a target of $5 billion for 2022.

RBC analyst Walter Spracklin said in a note that he expects to see a significant boost to earnings per share ahead as he revised up his price target for the railway.

"We are now factoring in significant operating improvement into our forward estimates and valuation. The upside, if achieved, is meaningful."

CN's share price was trading up $4.66 or 3.17 per cent at $151.51 in midday trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:CNR, TSX:CP)

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