Campana: Death of Kelleher transcends more than aviation industry

Arizona’s largest ballroom was packed to capacity for the “Breakfast Series” showcasing individual Valley leaders; but this one was slated to be really provocative.

Sam Campana

Herb Kelleher, the wildly successful entrepreneur who famously founded Southwest Airlines on the back of a bar napkin in Dallas, Texas, was yet unknown in Arizona. Corporate tables were filled with top team members who quickly pocketed the $25 Southwest Airlines coupon at each place setting.

Though this long before the term “politically incorrect” had joined the American lexicon, it would not surprise me if the phrase was coined that day, to describe Herb Kelleher. The CEO was rumored to have been a big drinker, a chain smoker and a man who rarely slept, but his company and their upstart success was one we all wanted to know more about, perhaps emulate.

The sponsoring company of the series was Blue Cross/Blue Shield, whose corporate banner would prove to be an almost comical backdrop for this irreverent maverick. The host kept his introduction short — as he could see Herb was already headed toward the stage — and Herb sauntered up to the podium, lit cigarette and a glass of golden liquid in hand. He took a drag, squared to face his audience, and exhaled a plume of smoke that literally obscured the Blue Cross insignia! We knew we were in for a treat.

Herb crushed it, commandeered the audience like a Top Gun fighter pilot. By the end of his talk, the chatter in the room had turned from “how can we emulate his success?” to “how can we work for this guy?” At the very least, we knew where our next plane ticket would be purchased. Travel was fun again, with Southwest and Herb!

But for all laughs and excitement that early morning, here’s the epiphany that came from a simple question posed to Herb:

How do you keep your Southwest Team so loyal?

“Well, you know how y’all have built a business model around the notion that the customer is always right? Hell,” he drawled, after a sip of that bourbon, “the customer is rarely right!

I’m sure he went on to explain about how the Southwest Airlines culture is to provide training on every facet of the airplane, the vendors, the airport and travel. How excellent service can be fun, funny and always safe because of their extraordinary preparation. And, how his staff was ready to make right any complaint from a customer, as they are to this day.

But none of that mattered as much as the nugget of truth in his cheeky response. The customer?? Wrong?! Herb Kelleher showed us the emperor’s lack of clothing.

Herb finished his speech and we were thrilled, provoked, fundamentally changed by this notion that, as businesspeople, we could be confident in our staffs and our conflict resolution … without always giving in. And as customers, we were put on notice that if we complained, the Southwest team would listen and resolve — even if it was just for placation.

That though our concerns might be well-founded, there was as more than a chance we were in the wrong! What a concept! On my way out, I felt the weight of his words and that $25 coupon in my purse, certain my next flight — and likely my loyalty — would be with Southwest Airlines.

Editor’s note: Ms. Campana is a former mayor of Scottsdale and longtime resident

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