What Made Herb
Kelleher … Herb
People at Southwest Airlines knew Herb Kelleher by a number of
titles during his years as president, CEO and executive chairman;
founder, inspiration, chairman emeritus and of course, friend.
Kelleher died Thursday at age 87.
Herb and his client/partner Rollin King incorporated Air
Southwest, Inc. in 1967 to offer low-fare, intra-Texas airline
service. Southwest Airlines grew into an industry giant with 58,000
employees and the largest Boeing 737 fleet in the world – 742 –
operated on some 4,000 daily departures. Herb served as Southwest
Airlines executive chairman from March 1978 to May 2008 and as
president and CEO from September 1981 to June 2001.
From day one, Kelleher ran Southwest using a number of simple
business strategies including one considered outrageous to this
day, that keeping the airline’s employees happy should be the
carrier’s primary focus. Happy employees, Kelleher believed,
would translate into happy customers and eventually happy
shareholders, a philosophy that proved to be true under his
guidance. Shareholders came to appreciate that in 48 years of
operation, Southwest Airlines never failed to deliver a
Kelleher focused on keeping fares low and making it clear up
front to passengers that the airline didn’t offer frills along
the way, except for peanuts. Southwest operated a single aircraft
type, the 737, to keep maintenance and training costs in line.
Another airline, Ryanair in Ireland, successfully copied the
Southwest model. Kelleher and King also decided success demanded
avoid operations at congested major airports like Chicago O’Hare,
Boston Logan or Miami International, opting for secondary locations
like Midway, Fort Lauderdale and Manchester NH.
Most of all, Kelleher was known for a personal trait normally
missing from most executives in the aviation industry, a sense of
humor displayed early on when Herb found a roll for himself
in the airline’s early advertising.
Wild Turkey and
I had an opportunity to meet Herb Kelleher at a 1997 William A.
Patterson Transportation lecture held at Northwestern
University’s Transportation Center where I’d earned my graduate
degree just a few years earlier.
As we planned the after-lecture get together, we all knew there
was only one gift we could possibly offer the chairman, a large
bottle of Herb’s favorite beverage Wild Turkey bourbon. As it
turned out, I was first to suggest Herb crack open the bottle and
share, a move that earned a big smile from Kelleher, as well as a
copy of his book Nuts and a Wild Turkey on the rocks of course.
Kelleher was nearly the last man standing at Northwestern that
night never seeming to tire from a near-endless barrage of
questions accented by dozens of his best industry stories.
Herb’s management style was best explained in a post last week
on Southwest’s blog by Linda Rutherford, the company’s senior
vice president & chief communications officer. “As we all
know, Herb has played a very profound role in the life of President
Emeritus Colleen Barrett. They have been a powerful pair since she
became his legal secretary in 1967, and together they nurtured and
groomed Southwest Airlines into one of the most admired Companies
in the world. Colleen said: “He always supported me and always
treated me as his complete equal. His generosity and inclusion from
the very beginning allowed me opportunities and experiences that
have been my guiding lights.”
When a copyright dispute arose between Southwest Airlines and
Stevens Aviation CEO Kurt Herwald over which company had the right
to use the marketing slogan “Just Plane Smart,” the pair of
CEOs recognized early on that litigation would be a waste of time
and money. Instead, they decided to settle the matter with a public
arm wrestling match. Priceonomics called the event, “utter chaos,
utter cheesiness — everything one could hope for in a
professional wrestling match.” Some 4,500 people packed a Dallas
sports facility to watch the
PR stunt billed as a wrestling match. Priceonomics said,
“Kelleher, a natural weirdo, reveled in the absurdity of the
event. Clad in a bathrobe and flanked by a dozen pom-pomming
cheerleaders, he emerged from his multi-colored bus to great
fanfare.” Kelleher lost the battle, but good naturedly donated
$10,000 to the Ronald McDonald House as his penalty. Communication
professionals believe the airline garnered at least $6 million in
positive publicity from the event.
“The CEOs’ 1992 battle was perhaps the most unconventional
way a major corporation has ever settled a legal dispute — but it
taught us something more: sometimes it pays to conduct
business with a sense of humor.”
Southwest’s current CEO Gary Kelly said, “One of the
greatest joys of my life has been working alongside Herb for more
than 30 years. His stamp on the airline industry cannot be
overstated. His vision for making air travel affordable for all
revolutionized the industry, and you can still see that
transformation taking place today. But his legacy extends far
beyond our industry and far beyond the world of entrepreneurship.
His true impact can only be accurately measured by the hearts and
minds of the People who he inspired, motivated, and engaged on a
daily basis. And that, I believe, cannot be measured or
quantified—but it is to be admired and appreciated by all who
have been fortunate enough to experience it. I consider myself
blessed to be one of those people.”
Herb Kelleher is survived by his wife, Joan, three of their four
children, many cherished grandchildren, and, of course, his pride
the employees of Southwest Airlines. In the interest of full
disclosure, this writer has been a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
member for decades.
Note: Portions of this story ran originally at
Source: FS – Aviation
What Made Herb Kelleher … Herb