Colour­ful lawyer was co-founder and boss of big­gest do­mes­tic air­line in the US

Nelson Mail - - Obituaries -

Herb Kelle­her, the charis­matic and colour­ful co-founder of Southwest Air­lines, was hardly a cookie-cut­ter chief ex­ec­u­tive. He showed up at com­pany par­ties dressed as Elvis Pres­ley, in­vited em­ploy­ees to a weekly cook­out, han­dled bag­gage dur­ing the Thanks­giv­ing rush and brought dough­nuts to a hangar at 4am for his air­line’s me­chan­ics.

He once arm-wres­tled an ex­ec­u­tive from an­other com­pany to set­tle a le­gal dis­pute, and never hid his fond­ness for cig­a­rettes and bour­bon. Yet he was con­sid­ered a vi­sion­ary busi­ness leader whose record of sus­tained suc­cess at Southwest led For­tune mag­a­zine to ask on its cover:

‘‘Is Herb Kelle­her Amer­ica’s best CEO?’’

Kelle­her, once a New Jer­sey lawyer, won a court case in 1971 al­low­ing Southwest to be­gin op­er­at­ing in Texas. With its in­no­va­tive, nofrills ap­proach, it be­came the coun­try’s most prof­itable and most im­i­tated air­line. Once a feisty up­start, it is now the largest do­mes­tic car­rier in the United States, with an­nual rev­enues ap­proach­ing US$25 bil­lion.

No cause of death was pro­vided for Kelle­her, who was 87. He was treated for prostate can­cer nearly 20 years ago. When asked if his five-pack-a-day smok­ing habit may have caused his can­cer, he quipped: ‘‘I don’t smoke with my prostate.’’

His in­stinc­tive, self-taught man­age­ment style has been stud­ied in busi­ness schools and em­u­lated at count­less com­pa­nies. At Southwest, he cre­ated what he called a ‘‘cul­ture of com­mit­ment’’, in which em­ploy­ees – not cus­tomers – came first. The idea was sim­ple: happy work­ers would lead to happy pas­sen­gers, thus giv­ing the air­line a com­pet­i­tive edge.

‘‘What’s im­por­tant,’’ he told Forbes, ‘‘is that a cus­tomer should get off the air­plane feel­ing, ‘I didn’t just get from A to B. I had one of the most pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ences I ever had and I’ll be back for that rea­son.’ ’’

Hir­ing the right peo­ple, he be­lieved, was a leader’s most cru­cial task. ‘‘What we are look­ing for first and fore­most is a sense of hu­mour.’’ Southwest flight at­ten­dants be­came known for telling corny jokes over the cabin in­ter­com and for silly gags, such as award­ing prizes to pas­sen­gers with holes in their socks.

‘‘Good morn­ing, ladies and gen­tle­men,’’ one flight at­ten­dant an­nounced, af­ter smok­ing was no longer per­mit­ted on com­mer­cial flights. ‘‘Those of you who wish to smoke will please file out to our lounge on the wing, where you can en­joy our fea­ture film, Gone With the Wind.’’

Southwest was founded in 1967, when Kelle­her was work­ing as a lawyer for Texas busi­ness­man Rollin W King. They sketched out a plan on a cock­tail nap­kin, as leg­end has it, to open a short-haul air­line with cheap flights con­nect­ing Dal­las, Hous­ton and San An­to­nio. Kelle­her chipped in $10,000 of his own money. The com­pany lost money for two years and was forced to sell one of its three planes. But by its third year, it was turn­ing a profit.

There was no cooked food on a Southwest flight, only drinks and crack­ers or peanuts, which Kelle­her some­times served him­self. (In 2000, the com­pany re­moved three peanuts from each packet, sav­ing US$300,000 a year.)

Kelle­her would ride into com­pany gath­er­ings on a Harley-David­son mo­tor­cy­cle, some­times singing Blue Suede Shoes while dressed as Elvis.

But his favourite stunt came in 1991, when Southwest was threat­ened with le­gal ac­tion by Stevens Avi­a­tion, a small com­pany in South Carolina. At the time, Southwest’s ad­ver­tis­ing slo­gan was ‘‘Just Plane Smart’’. It claimed to be un­aware Stevens Avi­a­tion al­ready had ‘‘Plane Smart’’ as its motto.

Kelle­her pro­posed that he and Stevens Avi­a­tion chairman Kurt Her­wald set­tle mat­ters with an arm-wrestling match. ‘‘Rather than pay a team of lawyers, Her­wald and I de­cided to wres­tle it out at the Spor­ta­to­rium in Dal­las,’’ Kelle­her said. ‘‘It was a hoot. The whole world focused on it. The BBC called to in­ter­view me in Lon­don. I told them I was too busy train­ing.’’

In pho­to­graphs of his ‘‘train­ing’’, Kelle­her was shown lift­ing bot­tles of bour­bon in both hands as a cig­a­rette dan­gled from his lips.

More than 1000 spec­ta­tors at­tended the ‘‘Mal­ice in Dal­las’’ show­down. ‘‘In the end,’’ Kelle­her said, ‘‘I got trounced.’’

But all was not lost. He and Her­wald be­came fast friends, and they agreed both com­pa­nies could share the ‘‘Plane Smart’’ slo­gan.

Herbert David Kelle­her was born in Cam­den, New Jer­sey. He was 12 when his fa­ther, an ex­ec­u­tive with the Camp­bell Soup Com­pany, died. An older brother was killed in World War II.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife, the for­mer Joan Ne­g­ley; three of their four chil­dren; and nu­mer­ous grand­chil­dren. – Wash­ing­ton Post

Kelle­her would ride into com­pany gath­er­ings on a Harley-David­son mo­tor­cy­cle, some­times singing Blue Suede Shoes while dressed as Elvis.

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