Southwest Leader: Highest Duty Not to Customers, But Employees

“I thought as my career went on, things would get easier,” said Gary Kelly, president and board chairman of Southwest Airlines. “But as time wore on I realized you have to work hard every day you’re on this earth—no exceptions.”

Speaking at the AT&T Center to a room packed with business students, Kelly offered a glimpse into the tightly competitive world of commercial aviation. A world that Southwest—profitable for the last 38 consecutive years—has come to dominate as other airlines edge toward bankruptcy.

With the recent acquisition of AirTran set to increase the airline’s already substantial 27 percent market share, Kelly admitted that the company was planning on expanding into international markets, though not soon.

But amid the impressive figures, facts, and statistics that characterized Thursday’s conversation, a theme persisted: Southwest has advanced on the backs of its employees, a fact that Kelly readily acknowledged.

Asked about his biggest accomplishment, Kelly, BBA ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, steadfastly minimized his own successes and reiterated the importance of living up to his employee’s expectations.

“None of us are on our own or independent,” he insisted. “We’re all dependent on one another. When I was first appointed CEO it really struck me that ‘Wow, now I’m responsible for 35,000 people.’ It’s an obligation I take seriously.”

As self-deprecating as Kelly was, his recent merger with AirTran shows a cunning borne of experience. Faced with integrating AirTran employees, undoubtedly suspicious of their new place in this competing company, into the Southwest “family,” Kelly did the simple: he held a barbecue. “People love food,” he said. “They like beer better, but they love food. It doesn’t take a lot to show them that you care about them.”

Of course he’s not all beer and checkered tablecloths. When asked by the moderator if the customer was always right, Kelly replied no (the operative word being always), saying that Southwest’s true obligation was to its employees, who have just as much stake in a pleasant work environment as anyone who’s purchased a ticket.

Even though Southwest employees are not the airline industry’s highest-paid, Kelly added, they kept their benefits when other companies were shedding theirs.

The Southwest leader also defended his criticism of the FAA, saying that efforts to modernize the traffic control system were progressing painfully slowly and that the FAA was unwieldy as an institution.

Kelly gave the final word of the evening to his employees: “We succeed because we put people and their interests first. Our employees would balk, refuse to do their job, if we did it any other way.”

Gary Kelly at Love Field, Dallas. Image courtesy Southwest Airlines.



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