Herb Kelleher is synonymous with success. He has become the poster child for the airline industry in an era where there has been precious little good news. Kelleher founded Southwest Airlines against considerable behind the scenes and blatant opposition and went on to head one of the most significant success stories in American business.
Kelleher was born in the late winter of 1931 in New Jersey. He enjoyed his education in the Northeast and moved with his wife and four children to Texas, theoretically to start a law firm. In the early 70′s the airline industry was going through one of its many periodic reinventions and endured a very poor reputation among consumers. Kelleher was sure that he could change this by injecting a breath of fresh air, a maverick approach and a different philosophy. To him, the "hub and spoke" operating system employed by the major airlines had inherent flaws and was a major reason for their litany of problems. In addition, the congestion at these major hub airports was a major turnoff for flyers and Kelleher decided that, rather than be like all other startups and try to squeeze gate allocations, he would choose a different approach.
Other airlines have mimicked the Southwest approach, perhaps most notably JetBlue, but the major airlines have been unable to achieve the high rankings of Southwest, which has been number one for on-time arrivals and departures more often than not. Kelleher opted for simplicity, choosing only the Boeing 737 planes throughout the entire fleet for logistical and operational purposes. He ensured that the company honed the task of turning around a plane between landing and takeoff to a fine art, so that they could utilize these very expensive assets to ultimate effect during each flying day. Perhaps most notably, Southwest avoids all the major airports and features secondary city ports or other fields which are essentially close to major conurbations.
Kelleher is known for his colorful personality and his larger-than-life approach. The Southwest Airlines of today owes virtually everything to this and its customer service has being built on a lighter approach to the sometimes dowdy business of flying, while maintaining a first-class work ethic and an unrivaled approach to safety.
"We tell our people, "don’t worry about profit. Think about customer service." Profit is a byproduct of customer service. It’s not an end in and of itself." Kelleher maintains that the company is marketed gregariously. He injects an element of self-deprecation and encourages all his staff to engage an outgoing personality. It is not unknown for flight attendants to sing their in-flight announcements or to cast pithy comments about a particularly bumpy landing, for example.
Southwest Airlines can be viewed as one of the few truly original success stories within the airline industry. At the time of its launch, it was certainly seen as one of many upstarts, destined for bankruptcy in short order. However, Kelleher’s approach defied critics and the company has gone on to be nothing less than an outstanding success. Southwest has been named one of the most admired corporations in America and the best place to work on many different occasions.
In 1996, Kelleher wrote a book entitled "Nuts," documenting the success of the airline, its title referring to his famous policy of serving only soft drinks and peanuts onboard at a time when others were complicating issues with meals of varying size. He likes to keep in the present and take advantage of trends, advocating an open approach. For example, he is frequently seen flying on Southwest routes and engaging with other passengers.
Kelleher may be a joker, but he is very shrewd. He knows that his disarming personality makes it difficult for other people to take offense, yet beneath that front is a highly efficient "people person" and one who knows how to motivate. "People who emphasize too strongly the fact that they are professionals usually are not very good at what they do."
In business today there are few top executives like Kelleher, who seems to shun the traditional American corporate image and everything that it evokes. He has certainly struck a chord with flyers and, almost forty years later, Southwest Airlines continues to go from strength to strength.