Southwest Airlines founder and larger-than-life CEO-emeratus passed away today. He was 87 years old. The announcement of his passing came via Twitter.
In an accompanying press release, Southwest Airlines morned their leader with the following statement:
“We are deeply saddened to share that Southwest Airlines Founder and Chairman Emeritus Herbert D. Kelleher passed away today at the age of 87.
Herb was a pioneer, a maverick, and an innovator. His vision revolutionized commercial aviation and democratized the skies. Herb’s passion, zest for life, and insatiable investment in relationships made lasting and immeasurable impressions on all who knew him and will forever be the bedrock and esprit de corps of Southwest Airlines.
The entire Southwest Family extends our deepest sympathies to Herb’s wife, Joan, and his entire family.”– Southwest Airlines Press Statement
Herb Kelleher was born in New Jersey in 1931. He was serving as a lawyer in San Antonio in the late 1960s when one of his clients, Rollin King, requested help to liquidate his small airline known as Wild Goose Flying Service. Herb Kelleher struck up a relationship with King. Over whiskey and robust discussion, they mapped out a plan for intra-Texas air service in 1967. Thus Air Southwest (which later became Southwest Airlines) was formed.
It wasn’t until four years later that Southwest started service out of Dallas Love Field with service to Houston and San Antonio with just three jets. The little airline overcame a myriad of challenges. From lawsuits, to predatory pricing, to market downturns, Southwest Airlines prevailed through every storm. Over the next 37 years, Kelleher would command his ‘red-bellied warriors’ as they brought low cost service to destinations across the country. He grew Southwest into a major industry player and the most consistently profitable airline ever before stepping aside in 2008 as his final role as Chairman. While serving as CEO, Kelleher said,”
It is my practice to try to understand how valuable something is by trying to imagine myself without it.
His original legal secretary (from when Southwest Airlines was formed), Colleen Barrett, succeeded him as CEO. When she retired, Gary Kelly took the helm. He continues as a CEO today, leading the company that Kelleher built.
Today, Southwest Airlines is the nation’s largest airline in terms of domestic passengers flown. It employs over 58,000 employees and flies to 99 destinations and is frequently a leader in the least amount of passenger complaints amongst all US airlines.
More so than just creating an airline, Herb Kelleher was a legendary leader. He had a very serious focus on taking care of his people and leading his airline. But he never took himself too serious. In his 1994 book ‘Nuts’, Herb wrote of the importance of taking care of your people and putting employees first. It was through this principle that employees would then take care of customers and thus the company as a whole would succeed. Herb Kelleher never furloughed an employee during his tenure.
Kelleher is survived by his wife Joan and three children.