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A Salute to Herb

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Today marks a milestone in Southwest Airlines' history, and it's hard to know whether to celebrate or cry.  Our Executive Chariman and Cofounder, Herb Kelleher steps down as Chairman and gives up his Board position.  I don't need to go into pages of history to outline Herb's importance to the operation of our Company, and some of the links below will cover that. 

However, no matter how great a businessman or entrepreneur Herb is, what truly makes him great is his humanity.  I first met Herb 11 or 12 years ago at my first of many of Colleen's Working Lunches.  I had just explained to the crowd how my father, who had been a strong Southwest detractor due to his position with another airline, used to give the Southwest planes flying over the family pool at cocktail hour the middle-finger salute.  I asked Herb if he had ever felt voodoo-like daggers at 6:00 p.m. every day, and I was treated to that famous Herb laugh. 

No matter how many people in the room, Herb has the ability to make his conversation partner feel that she or he is the sole subject of attention.

When I used to stock the boardroom, Herb would often come through there on his way to the office and stop and speak with me.  I learned more about the airline industry in those short conversations than in a PhD course on airline history.

Thankfully, Herb will remain as a Southwest Employee for the foreseeable future, and he leaves the executive reigns in great hands with CEO Gary Kelly.  Since this is Herb's "last Officer day," I thought you might like to read several items on his legacy.  The first is from the current Texas MonthlyThe Dallas Morning News blog has a lengthy  three-part interview with Herb.  Here's the first part, this is the second, and here is the third.  Also, check out our video tribute to Herb and Colleen in the video blog section.

Since I wrote this, Terry Maxon has added a part four and part five to the Morning News blog.

9 Comments
New Arrival
I've been lucky enough to have many "encounters" with Herb over the years, but my favorite story is this ... It was a weekend ... I forget if it was Sat or Sun ... but I was at work at HDQ, and the fire alarm went off. Thirty or fourty of us garthered on the sidewalk out front, waiting for the situation to be evaluated. Of course Herb and Colleen were there, as always, visiting with folks to pass the time. Finally the fire truck arrived. A couple of firemen went inside to check things out and a couple of others stayed with the truck. The next thing I knew, I turned around and Herb was up on top of the truck crawling around and asking questions. He wasn't showing off (much :-)) ... he just seemed really interested in knowing more about all the gadgets on the truck. I've always thought that curiosity was crucial to staying young and vibrant. It seems to be true for Herb.
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Southwest Airlines was the first plane I ever flew on (as a young adult) and it continues, to this day, to be my airline of choice. They always treat me right. And, they always remember that customers in South Texas (Harlingen, Brownsville, and Corpus Christi) depend heavily on them for business and vacation travel support. The credit for these outstanding services must be attributed to Mr. Kelleher. Successful business grows from successful leadership. Although I never met Mr. Kelleher, I want to say 'Here's Love to you, Herb Kelleher.' And, I am confident your successor, Mr. Kelly, will continue your customer-friendly and safe airflight services. Bon Voyage!
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Herb is truly one of a kind! I am so grateful that I got the opportunity to meet him during my internship at SWA a couple of years ago. My Herb Kelleher bobble-head still watches over my office at home, too. Congrats to a remarkable man on a truly remarkable career!
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I was fortunate enough to get to interview Herb for my Strategic Management course at the University of Kentucky in March 2008. It was an amazing experience to get to meet him and learn first hand from the airline expert. The opportunity has been the best experience I have had in college thus far. I remember being so nervous before it, but as soon as he introduced himself, all fears were alleviated, from there the rest is all fun and games and a 40 page paper! Thanks, Herb for the amazing opportunity!
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RE: Full page tribute to Mr. Herb Kelleher in USA Today, May 21, 2008 I would propose no other airline in the world would engender the appreciation for a captain of industry like Herb. It is refreshing to see the pilot's association of SWA have done so. That says volumes about a company that is doing things right in an industry that is struggling with serious challenges. Years ago it was my priveledge to visit with Mr.Kelleher on a Southwest Flight, as he was known to sit in the passenger cabin on frequent occasions. We exchanged about the the airline industry and other industries, and how the company heads led their businesses. We got around to the retailing, hospitality, vehicle manufactuing and other businesses and exchanged about the company heads who spent every day in their offices vs. those who "got out there" even if just occasionally to monitor how the business was actually running and how the customers were responding. Herb was the latter category but much more - inquisitive about everything, passionate about the industry, passionate about Southwest, its people and its customers. As a customer from the very beginning inaugural flights in the early 70s with a fleet of 3 Boeing 737's, 3 destinations and a contrarian business model that could be made to work, Southwest has always been "my airline of choice". Its people like Herb, Collen and all the others at SWA that make it so. Best wishes, Donald D. Beck PhD Grand Rapids, MI
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I can't seem to find the Full page tribute to Mr. Herb Kelleher in USA Today, May 21, 2008. I guess I'm not a genius at navigating USA Today's website. Could you link it, or let us know how to find it? I'd really like to read it. Thanks!
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Well the tribute is an advertisement that our Pilots purchased. It won't be on the USA Today web site, and for right now, they only way to see it is in yesterday's paper. If we find a link to it in another medium, we will post it.
New Arrival
Herb and Colleen have given us an exciting life at Southwest. We have an exciting job, make exciting friends, go exciting places, have exciting stories, wait on exciting Customers, work in an exciting industry and we all owe them big thanks for making this world more exciting and accessible for all. Thank you and I LUV you both so much.
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I just want to wish the Best for Herb and Colleen. They have made Southwest into a Fantastic Company! No business is perfect and everyone has a flaw or two, but to empower your employees to go out of their way for customer service is unprecedented in the airline industry. I remember reading a quote from Colleen that said something like " We are not an airline that specializes in Customer Service, But a Customer Service Company that just happens to be an Airline". As a Southwest Airlines Employee, I want to say "Thank You" for never laying off employees, when every other airline has! 9/11 was difficult for everyone in the United States, but Southwest opted not to take the easy way out by cutting employees. For some reason, I can hear Herb and Colleen saying "We can't do this to our employees! They have made us into what we are today, so let's look at other ways to cut expenses!" Southwest even added employees after 9/11 to compensate for additional security. I was amazed after 9/11, when Southwest Board Members and Executive froze their pay for 3 months (if I remember correctly). Southwest opted to allow employees to donate money out of their paychecks to off set expenses, and over a MILLION dollars was given back to Southwest from employees. Gary has a huge responsibility (and shoes to fill), but I am confident Southwest will look after their employees and customers just like you did! Herb and Colleen, I just want you to know that you have my greatest respect, and to say that you both made a huge difference, not only in the airline industry, but in beliefs and ethics of MANY SOUTHWEST EMPLOYEES! As an employee, when I think of Southwest Airlines, I automatically think of "Herb and Colleen"--The Fantastic Duo!! This day marks the "End Of An Era"! , but because of YOU, Southwest Airlines will Continue to Fly Above The Rest! THANK YOU!!!!!