Yesterday, National Public Radio did a piece on Southwest which is available on the NPR website. Here is an excerpt of the story...
National Public Radio, “Morning Edition”
December 4, 2002
“Southwest Airlines Soars Above Industry’s Turbulence”
BOB EDWARDS: United Airlines is fighting off bankruptcy. Other major
carriers are cutting routes and laying off employees and it’s estimated the industry may lose more than $9 billion this year, but there’s an exception to the industry’s bad news -- Southwest Airlines has remained profitable despite the post-September 11th downturn. It’s grown from a tiny regional operation into the nation’s fourth-largest airline and Southwest is the only large carrier adding staff. Employees and executives are convinced the company’s unusual culture has made all the difference. NPR’s Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN: It’s a recent Wednesday afternoon and the scene is the
second floor of Southwest Airlines corporate headquarters. The employees of the Corporate Communication Department are throwing a holiday party, a not uncommon occurrence here at Southwest headquarters -- parties are part of the culture at this company and as soon as the food arrives, so does Southwest President and Chief Operating Officer Colleen Barrett. She’s dressed casually; her long silver hair tied behind her head. Barrett looks like she’s an employee’s beloved aunt or mother crashing the party. She’s immediately surrounded and led over to the food table as they show her
the lavish cornucopia of food they’ve all made for this party and brought from home. You can hear in the employees’ voices their affection for Barrett.
UNIDENTIFIED SOUTHWEST AIRLINES EMPLOYEE: Slow-roasted ever so perfectly. (Laughter.) And good for you. (Laughter.) Dig in my dear.
COLLEEN BARRETT [President and Chief Operating Officer, Southwest
Airlines]: Oh, I just might!
GOODWYN: It is no accident that Colleen Barrett is here. When it comes to the
subject of her employees, she has her fingers in every little pie. She knows that this department’s party always has great food because the employees try to outdo one another with their best holiday dishes. Once Barrett found out, she told Herb Kelleher, Chairman of the Board and co-founder of Southwest Airlines and suddenly he appears out of nowhere, a buffalo wing already stuffed in his mouth. He, too, is immediately swarmed by employees happy to see him.
HERB KELLEHER [Chairman of the Board and Co-founder, Southwest
Airlines]: Put it there, Todd. How do you?
TODD [Southwest Airlines Employee]: Great. How are you?
KELLEHER: I’ll tell you what. The food is just wonderful.
TODD: Isn’t it so far?
KELLEHER: It’s paradise for me.
GOODWYN: This party is instructive about Southwest Airlines in several ways,
not the least of which is the obvious lack of deference shown to Kelleher and Barrett. There is no fear, no reticence, no carefully harsh toadying going on here. Ed Stewart is a senior director at Southwest Airlines. He’s an industry veteran who has worked at other airlines before coming to Southwest. Stewart says he’s never seen anything like Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett.
ED STEWART [Senior Director, Southwest Airlines]: And that’s the way
they are all the time. I mean -- I’ve been here almost 12 years and I got to tell you, you cannot fake sincerity. What you see with these folks is truly what you get.
BARRETT: If you work hard and if you treat people with respect, that will
never disappoint you in life.
GOODWYN: For the last 20 years, Colleen Barrett has been the main architect
of Southwest corporate culture -- a major ingredient of the airline’s success. Barrett was Herb Kelleher’s legal secretary back in 1967 when the airline was founded. Barrett’s rise from secretary to company president has helped cement Southwest’s reputation as a place where ability is valued over credentials. Barrett says that from the time of Southwest’s birth, she had her own ideas about how people inside a company could relate to one another.
BARRETT: It came from me watching other companies. I’m a great studier of
people; I love to do that. I mean I’m an airport groupie, you know, I’ll sit and watch people in the gate lounge for hours.
GOODWYN: Barrett came to believe that hierarchies while perhaps a necessary
evil were actually an obstacle to any company’s long-term success.
BARRETT: I was raised in a very poor family, I mean, my mother always just
taught me that nobody was better than anyone else. I don’t naturally think in terms of rank. I think we have tried very hard at Southwest not to talk in terms of rank or jurisdiction.
GOODWYN: Barrett’s and Southwest’s philosophy is as simple as it is radical;
that its employees are its first and most important customers; that if the company can make them happy, they in turn will work hard on behalf of the company and Barrett has been instrumental in holding the airline to this course.
BARRETT: We want people to have fun at work. We don’t want them to think
that work is, you know, just professional stuffy stereotype, you know, leave your personality at home and become this robotic Stepford wife type deliverer of whatever it is that you do.
GOODWYN: Southwest employees are unmatched in terms of productivity. To
this day, it is not unusual to see Southwest pilots helping flight attendants clean the cabin in a tight turnaround. It surprises many to learn that Southwest is among the most unionized airlines in the industry, but Barrett and other top management have avoided the bloody battles that have crippled other carriers. Barrett sees to it that the unions understand they’re not considered the enemy.
BARRETT: When I came up here, one of the first things that I did -- any time
that we had an event -- a company event -- Christmas party, chili cook off whatever, I always assured that the union folks were invited. I mean to me we are one family. It’s an extended family member perhaps, but nevertheless, I wanted them to say we when they talked about Southwest. That really was my thinking.
GOODWYN: This idea that Barrett and the other top managers are the guardians of something precious is reflected on the walls of the corporate headquarters in Dallas; corridors as long as city blocks are lined with thousands of pictures of Southwest employees -- employees with their families, in front of their houses; pretty young women with their boyfriends; guys sitting proudly on their motorcycles, on their boats. One whole wall is just for pictures of employees with their pets. It looks like a grandmother
gone mad, but it has its appeal. With the company now grown to 35,000 employees, Barrett has all the pictures changed every three years. She occasionally straightens them herself as she makes her way down the hall. Southwest board chairman Herb Kelleher says Colleen Barrett has earned the trust of the company’s employees.
KELLEHER: She nurtured and she produced a culture, which is truly
extraordinary where people feel cared for; they feel wanted. They feel that they can be individualistic. They don’t have to wear masks to work.
GOODWYN: Among airline employees, the word is out about Southwest
Airlines. On average, more than 150,000 people a year apply to work at the company. Between 3,000 and 5,000 each year are hired. Barrett says Southwest will continue its strategy of growing slowly and staying close to what they do best: Point to point flying and owning that low-cost niche. This will be the 29th consecutive year of profitable operation for Southwest Airlines. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
Patrick Bateman is my hero.