Texas iconKelleherreinventedair travel
The other day I had occasion to visit an old mom-and-pop shop, and the experience was a pleasant diversion from the usual retail wars. How old was this place? I’m talking wooden floors. Unlevel wooden floors. But despite the, er, quaint interior, the service was first rate. The store carried a nice range of products and had a courteous staff. They even took returns well, which is a real test for any business.
It was the kind of store that once you discover, you come back again — even if it’s a bit out of the way or you have to adjust your schedule to theirs.
Herb Kelleher would have liked an operation like that. He knew the value of good employees and better service. In fact, he built an empire on it.
If his name doesn’t ring a bell, this one might: Southwest Airlines. Herb Kelleher is the man responsible for transforming Southwest from a small regional airline into the country’s largest domestic carrier, with annual revenues of $25 billion.
Kelleher changed aviation — and business — in Texas, and the nation. He died Jan. 3 at 87, though he had retired from Southwest years ago. But his passing was noted by people and CEOs all over the country, and for good reason.
He was not just a successful businessman; there are plenty of those. He practically reinvented an entire, established industry. All the while, he was flying by the seat of his pants, to borrow an aviation expression.
Kelleher started out as a lawyer, and sort of backed into the airline business. When he hooked up with Southwest, he figured he’d try something different to break out of the pack. Really different.
Kelleher didn’t subscribe to the old commandment that, “The customer is always right.” He turned that around to, “The employee is always right — or at least more important.”
Kelleher’s philosophy was simple: Hire the best people you can find and support them in word and deed. In turn, these people will perform so well for you that your business will grow. His workers weren’t a problem to be overcome or a nuisance to be paid as little as possible. They were a resource to be nurtured and cultivated, because that approach produced more profits for the company than the penny-pinching method.
He let them have fun, too, another thing that virtually no other CEO would allow back in the day. Flight attendants were not just allowed to tell jokes or play games with passengers, they were encouraged to do so. To show his workers how much he cared about them, Kelleher might show up at 4 a.m. with doughnuts for the flight crew or to help handle baggage during a Thanksgiving rush. He connected with average Joes and Janes on his work force in a way that few executives can.
Kelleher did other things to be successful. He was a pioneer in low-frills, low-cost, high-volume service. He didn’t want to squeeze a customer once for all he could get. He wanted to get him or her from Point A to Point B as quickly and cheaply as possible, so they would come back for another flight next month or next year.
And it worked. He essentially made airline service the train travel of modern times — something that almost everyone does because it’s so relatively quick and affordable.
He also used one style of engine on his fleet. Why? So his mechanics had to learn the ins and outs of only one system. Many other airlines made this basic function unnecessarily complicated. They still made money, but not as much as they could have.
The modern business world has plenty of innovators now, from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos. The word “disruptor” has even become fashionable. But Kelleher was doing these things at a time when most CEOs played by the same rules … and usually got the same results.
Kelleher was a Texas treasure, but he left lessons about quality and dependability that should be learned by companies here and in the 49 other states. Fortunately, some have already learned them, like a friendly neighborhood store that knows the value of repeat business.
Look for Thomas Taschinger’s business column every Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org