Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Herb Kelleher

On Sunday I was flying back to Kansas City from Austin, by way of Dallas, on Southwest Airlines. As I was queued up with other passengers, given the Southwest boarding system, I looked over and spotted former Southwest Chairman and CEO Herb Kelleher chatting up two of his airline associates.

Kelleher ended up getting on our flight and, as he came down the aisle, was not recognized except by a couple of us. As he came by my seat I reached out my hand, introduced myself and told him it was an honor to meet him. He looked me in the eye, said "it's great to see you," and "thanks for buying my groceries!" He then proceeded towards the back of the plane and sat amongst the rest of us on his fully packed Southwest aircraft to the airline's headquarters location of Dallas Love Field.

I was taken aback at Kelleher's approachability but not surprised given the many profiles which have been written about his style and the successful corporate culture he instilled at Southwest.

Story has it that Kelleher and one of his then law clients created the idea of Southwest Airlines on a cocktail napkin at a dinner. The airline started in 1971 and has succeeded by offering low fares combined with outstanding customer service. The company eliminated unnecessary services (e.g., assigned seats, in-flight meals) and built its "hub and spoke" system by building traffic at secondary airports like John Wayne Orange County (Los Angeles) and Midway (Chicago.)

Those of you who fly Southwest know of its culture--employees who don't take themselves too seriously, an in-flight experience intended to be fun and light-hearted and flight attendants who, more often than not, will engage in conversation and banter with their passengers. As a result, the company during its history has often made the "most admired" lists or been cited as a great place to work.

Kelleher stepped down as Chairman and resigned from the Board of Directors in 2008. But, my observations of him and interaction with him on Sunday reinforced that he is still loved by Southwest's employees.

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