Without benefit of land grants or subsidies, his Great Northern Railway, completed in 1893, was the only major U.S. railroad never to go bankrupt. What’s more, he developed a host of related companies in transportation, supply, storage and fuel.
How did Hill manage all that? Not from any advantages, that’s for sure. Born in a small town in Canada, Hill had to leave school at age 15 when his father died. Later, he had to give up his dream of becoming a doctor when he lost an eye.
Undeterred, Hill scouted for opportunities and found lots of them. These characteristics helped him:
- Integrity. “He set the standard for the honorable businessman,” says railroad expert Tom Murray. “We see in him not the kind of self-dealing and self-aggrandizement that led to the robber-baron label.”
- Competitiveness. The Great Northern Railway competed fiercely with Canadian Pacific, run by Hill’s former partner. Hill argued for flatter routes and milder grades for Great Northern’s routes, and he won the gamble in the form of greater speed, efficiency and reliability.
- Vision. “He was not afraid of bigness,” notes Don Hofsommer, professor of history at St. Cloud State University.
- Foresight. Instead of laying track where people had settled, Hill laid it where they were going. He sent instructors to teach farmers how to grow more wheat, then he stored it in his own grain elevators. He also shipped livestock to ranchers and apple trees to Washington state. Upon reaching the Pacific, he launched a fleet of ships to trade with Asia.
- Work ethic. He never stopped. Asked later for the secret to his success, Hill said: “Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work.”