Harold Ness passed away on December 14, 2018. He was a friend, a mentor, and a helper to all. He wrote his own story in my book “ACHIEVERS ORDINARY PEOPLE WHO DO EXTRAORDINARY THINGS” his goal was to pass on what he had learned in his successful career in finance as well as how he progressed in it. He wanted to inspire young people that if he could come from the small town of PeaceRriver,
The Harold Ness Story:
From Immigrant to The Railroad
This is a brief story of my background and forty plus years of work experience – also the lessons learned, some observations, and many of the resultant applications that led to a reasonably successful work career.
In the 1930’s we left our Canadian homestead and came to the US. Our family of seven was all immigrants, with five from Norway and two from Canada. When I was five years old, I became a fatherless boy with the death of my dad. Six of us left the dust bowl area of Montana and settled in Minnesota. In today’s language you would call us poor, but we had a strong Christian belief, food to eat, and shelter (with few extras, but we had a radio).
From this economic situation, I was an immigrant boy who started working as a paperboy and after college progressed from an accounting clerk to a Chief Financial Officer in a large Corporation. During the 40 year journey, I worked for a mining company and five railroads – from a small mining railroad to the largest railroad in USA and huge Canadian railroad.
In academics, yes, my grades were sufficient to receive graduation certifications from high school and college. If I had a “do over”, some things I would have done differently:
- A mindset of learning and retention (reason for schooling)
- My studies would have been a higher priority, with less time in athletics, working and social activities
- Have someone to hold me accountable. My single mother worked long hours 5-6 days a week, five children, and not well versed in English nor American culture.
- I would choose some close friends who were interested in college education learning, especially if you live at home around non-college buddies.
- Apply myself. Striving towards achieving my potential. Not being satisfied with a “mediocre effort”.
- Realized that “shortfalls” in my learning would have to be made-up in order to progress in the business world.
A plan for my career? No I did not have a plan! Some people plan their career with goals and objectives, and they do it well. My plan was to get any job and do my very best. After that I spent time analyzing job opportunities. Looking back I could not have planned for, nor anticipated all the curves, miss-steps, relocations, mistakes etc. I know that the Lord was involved in every aspect and event in my work career.
Getting a job! I had a variety of jobs: paperboy, printer’s devil, golf course laborer, stocking store shelves, engine crew on “iron ore freighters”, scrap iron picketer, laborer on “construction crews”, U.S Army, accounting clerk, and many financial positions in business. With a couple of exceptions, a reference from a personal or work friend enabled me to obtain an interview.
In an interview I always tried to sell myself by being convincing, confident, humble and truthful. My next job opportunity might be impacted by how I left previous positions. Always leave on “friendly terms”.
During the first decade of my work career (after college), my jobs were as an “individual performer” – that is, with limited supervision responsibilities. These financial analysis and cost accounting years were with U.S. Steel and Pennsylvania Railroad. The financial areas were to provide information to management so they could make the best financial decisions. From a personal viewpoint, I was unconsciously developing a “base of knowledge” in mining and railroading.
After that, I was promoted to controller for the largest region in the Penn Central Railroad (Pennsylvania and New York Central merged). I relocated from Philadelphia to Indianapolis, Indiana. I reported to the general manager (an operations person), as well to my financial boss at the corporate level. The region had just been established and was really in the formulating stage of an accounting office. My challenge was to finalize the organizations in the five departments (150+ people), work with them to become effective, and meet the expectations of the operations departments and the corporate offices. Our success was attributed to the department heads and their people.
After a few years, the Penn Central filed for bankruptcy. The next year I accepted a position as manager of financial analysis in Minneapolis with the Soo Line Railroad, which ultimately was incorporated into the Canadian Pacific Railroad. During the next twenty-five years, I held various positions including Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer.
Any success I had can be attributed to “people” – those I worked for, those who reported to me (who made me look good), and my associates.
To summarize the forty (40) years: it was enjoyable, challenging and satisfying with (as you would expect) a range of experiences. The years ranged from “great” to “humdrum” and sometimes wishing for a “do over”. I liked what I was doing and was surrounded with outstanding people.
Keeping My Job
These elements (abridged) served me well:
- Strive to be the best possible
- Work ethic that goes beyond what is expected
- Strive to be on friendly terms with all levels of the organization, including other departments
- Fill gaps in “learning short falls” using the (abridged listings):
— text books
— college courses
— industry courses
— fellow workers/friends
— internet, social media
— Make your boss look good
Getting a Promotion
Have a reputation for:
- a work ethic beyond expectations
- Strive to do the best job you are capable of
- Knowledge of your area of expertise
- Making your boss look good
- Friendly relationships with people, especially the boss and other department supervisors
- Handling of disagreements with honesty, integrity, truth
- Loyalty. Never undermine your boss
- Don’t be a complainer
- Don’t be a “blamer”
- Take responsibility for your mistakes
- Be flexible
- Be available
- Not consumed with “pride of ownership”
- Give credit to others
- Promote the right people
Transferring to another company:
- Leave on good terms.
- Interview. Come across with elements of promotion. You made a contribution towards profits, selling, etc.
- Taking less pay for a position:
— see upward possibilities
— Move to a different physical location
Being an Individual Performer
To be an individual performer in the financial-accounting area of a company, there are certain things that are helpful (at least they were for me):
sure you understand your assignment and the time frame. Ask questions until you are confident of
- Remember that your completed product will result in a management financial decision.
- At the end of the day (not a calendar day), you must produce a product and on time.
- Your product can be the entire project or a contribution to someone else’s project.
- Accuracy is very important. When finishing a project check source information to final product and check all math computations.
- Always list as an attachment important assumptions and source of data used.
- Be confident of your source information.
- Presentation of product is very important. The recipient of your product must be able to easily understand both written and oral information. Your report must be logical, sequential and to the point. Too much detail is confusing. There will be questions about detail. Talk to your boss on a “preliminary basis”, so finalizing will be easier. Be artistic when you plan your final presentation.
Today’s textbooks, seminars and courses may have techniques and methods that differ from those I strived to apply. Abridged listing includes:
understanding of my expectations
- do not micro-manage
- do not over-coach
- hold them responsible for their performance
- encourage initiatives, creative thinking, work with others
- suggestions rather than commands
- provide recognition verbally, in person, before their peers and high levels of management
- annual performance reviews
- financial rewards
- promotions deserved
- support them when needed
- invite their attendance/presentation to higher management levels and other departments.
- treat fairly (like you would want to be)
I have known this gentleman for about 30 years. We are members of the same church and have been together on several finance committees. He has been a great role model for me and everyone who knows him. He is a passionate giver to many and is a great friend. His story speaks for itself as well as his honest desire to help people figure out how to succeed.
When I asked him for a story, I was seeking a story about a Canadian immigrant who sought and achieved the American dream. He wrote his story himself as he wanted to share it with his family. He put a lot of time and effort into this, and I appreciate this very much.