Kelleher, Herbert David
EntrepreneurEnshrined 2008 1931-2019
Armed with his ever present Kools and a glass of Wild Turkey, Herb Kelleher stepped down in 2008 as Southwest Airlines Chairman of the Board after 38 years. While many other airlines file for bankruptcy, Southwest Airlines has never furloughed an employee, even in the leanest of times. “You have to treat your employees like customers,” Kelleher preaches. Even with the pilots of in the midst of a contract negotiation, there was no picket line only a full page ad in the USA Today thanking Mr. Kelleher for “the positively outrageous service to our Company and our pilots.”
- Kelleher served as President and CEO (1982 – 2001) and Executive Chairman (1978-2008).
- Kelleher’s colorful personality and sense of humor created a corporate culture which made Southwest employees well-known for taking themselves lightly but their jobs seriously.
- Southwest began service with just three airplanes in 1971 and in 2008 the airline operated a fleet of more than 520 airplanes performing more than 3,400 flights a day.
- In 2008, the airline has had 35 consecutive years of profitability.
Born in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, Herb Kelleher was a star athlete and student body president in high school. He moved on to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he again became student body president. Kelleher studied English and strongly thought about becoming a journalist, but eventually he was pushed toward practicing law. He entered and excelled at New York University Law School. He served for a Supreme Court justice for two years before deciding to join a law firm in his home state of New Jersey.
Kelleher married Joan Negley, a college classmate, and they moved to San Antonio, Texas, to start a law firm or some kind of business. That’s where he met King. Herbert D. Kelleher and Rollin King, one of his business clients, decided that Texas could benefit from a short haul commuter airline. Legend has it that they sketched the idea on a napkin in a restaurant. It was a simple idea: If you get your passengers to their destinations when they want to get there, on time, at the lowest possible fares, and make sure they have a good time doing it, people will fly your airline.
Kelleher and King continued to plan out the details of the company, and after a few loans were taken out, the project was ready to begin. Southwest Airlines became official. Although the first two years were slow, the business has been profitable in every single year since. This is a record that no company has been able to match in the U.S. airline industry. Kelleher is extremely proud of the record, but he’s quick to explain that Southwest Airlines is quite a different company than the industry’s international airlines.
Although originally the lawyer for Southwest Airlines, Kelleher eventually became the president, CEO and executive chairman. Kelleher gave up is CEO titles in June 2001, but remained chairman. He stepped down as Chairman in May 2008. He is also the leading image and the basis for many of the innovative ideas that have made Southwest Airlines so successful.
Kelleher is a master at eliminating unnecessary costs. He chose not to use the airline computer reservation system that other airlines use. Meals were taken out of flights and Southwest chose to only use Boeing 737s. This means that pilots and mechanics only need to know how to fly and maintain one aircraft. All of these factors allowed Southwest Airlines to be able to cut so many costs that ticket prices are in many cases unbeatable.
During his tenure at Southwest, Kelleher’s colorful personality and sense of humor created a corporate culture which made Southwest employees well-known for taking themselves lightly but their jobs seriously. Flight attendants often sing in-flight announcements to popular songs and pilots tell jokes. Kelleher “raps” in training videos and is often involved with employee motivational activities. He once challenged another company president to an arm wrestling match to decide who would use the disputed slogan. He lost, but thousands showed up at an arena to see the event.
Kelleher recognizes and claims that Southwest’s employees are the reason for his company’s success. He brags that he simply hires the best people, treats them with respect and gives them the freedom to make decisions and to have fun just being themselves. He insists everyone call him “Herb.”
He credits his mother, Ruth. She told him that everyone should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title.
Southwest began service with just three airplanes in 1971 after years of courtroom battles with incumbent airlines. Today, Southwest operates a fleet of more than 520 airplanes performing more than 3,400 flights a day.
The airline has had 35 consecutive years of profitability. Southwest has never furloughed an employee, even after 9-11. For the 11th consecutive year, FORTUNE magazine’s survey of all industries recognized Southwest Airlines as number five among America’s ten most admired corporations.
He has received numerous awards and honors, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Leadership Hall of Fame, CEO of the Year and one of history’s top three CEOs.
Kelleher is also known for his community service activities. He runs the Southwest Airlines LUV Classic golf tournament which has raised $9 million for the Ronald McDonald House.
For daring to be different and his visionary leadership in commercial aviation, Herbert Kelleher has earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.