The Real Stuff

At the World Business Forum we ran into Herb Kelleher, our 1999 Chief Executive of the Year. Alone among the [...]

October 24 2007 by JP Donlon


At the World Business Forum we ran into Herb Kelleher, our 1999 Chief Executive of the Year. Alone among the luminous speakers lined up for that spectacle, Herb gave the most compelling presentation. No charts, no data, no big speeches nor animated effects and Hollywood clips to dazzle as Michael Eisner did. He just told stories about his Southwest comrades in arms and why the industry thought he was nuts to think that airline attendants would actually care about customers. Given that the industry has imploded on customer service, Southwest continues to stand apart, owing to its steadfast hold on its core values.

It also stands apart as the only profitable airline. Kelleher related that he received a phone call from an industry representative asking him to fly to Washington to represent the industry’s request for subsidies. “I told ‘em, €˜Guys, I don’t think you want me to represent you.’ When they ask me whether Southwest needs subsidies, I’m gonna say, €˜No we don’t need ‘em.’” Even in retirement Kelleher burnishes his maverick status. (And continues his affinity for 12-year-old Wild Turkey.)

Today, people accept Southwest’s success as foreordained. It very nearly was strangled at birth. In 1966, Rollin King, a Texas businessman who was planning to launch an intrastate airline, hired Kelleher as an outside counsel. (The business plan was drawn up between the two men on a cocktail napkin in a local bar.) Before the first plane left a hanger, bigger rivals including American, Texas International and Braniff (remember them?) nearly persuaded Texas courts not to permit the carrier to fly. Also riding shotgun at the lunch was Colleen Barrett, the keeper of the flame of what has made the company unique. The Bellows Falls, Vt., native is sometimes referred to as “The Queen of Hearts” for being the creative soul behind the culture. It was Colleen who remembered employee birthdays and sent handwritten notes upon the birth of their first-borns. She also played den mother to Herb’s court jester, often advising him whether a new hire truly had the joi de vivre and passion for people required to work at this loopy place that is an airline. When told by fashionista Diane von Furstenberg that she didn’t really like the “ambience” the carrier created, Kelleher, referring to the firm’s low-cost, no frills model, is said to have replied, “Gee, I didn’t know we had any.”

Catching up with Kelleher reminds me of something he once said. Business looks for techniques that are simple and fast. The tragedy of our times is that we have got it backwards: We have fallen in love with techniques and use people. Imagine thinking that people should come first.