Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher Photo

Herbert ‘Herb’ Dwight Kelleher co-founded the pioneering airlines ‘Southwest’. He was the chief executive officer of the company till 2008. With his leadership style and entrepreneurial skills he won himself several awards and honors. 

Kelleher was born on 12th March 1931 in Trenton, New Jersey. He went to Haddon Heights High School and later attended Wesleyan University graduating with a bachelor’s degree. He received his Juris Doctor from New York University. After that he practiced law for some time before he moved to Texas where he planned to start his law firm. He did start a company but it was not a law firm but an aviation company. He came up with the concept with one of his law firm clients Rollin King. After fighting various legal challenges set up by competitors who did not want this airline to start, they established the company in 1971 and named it ‘Southwest’ offering low fares to the passengers. They managed this by excluding needless services and eliminating ‘hub-and-spoke’ scheduling system which was used by other airlines. They used the secondary airports such as Chicago-Midway, Orange County and Albany.

The company expanded from just four planes to a leader of the industry. It has been in profitability from 38 years straight, a record which has not been touched by any other airline of the country. Kelleher realized that the airlines needed good marketing and a good word-of-mouth. The problem was that they did not have enough money for the kind of advertising they were looking for. So they did things like flight attendants wearing hot pants and a result got press reports equal to 15 to 20 million dollars. Kelleher also loved doing publicity stunts like wearing leprechaun outfits and Easter Bunny suits or driving motorcycles.

During his term as CEO of the company, Kelleher developed a corporate culture. The Southwest employees became known for being very jolly often singing the in-flight announcements to tunes of songs however this did not mean that they didn’t take their jobs seriously. Southwest is one of the most liked airlines and was also ranked among the leading five ‘Most Admired Corporations in America’ according to a survey done by Fortune Magazine. The same magazine called him the best CEO in America.

In 2004 Kelleher was inducted in the Junior Achievement U.S Hall of Fame. In 2008 Kelleher left his post of Chairman and resigned the Board of Directors. However he remained the employee of Southwest for the next five years. In 2010 Kelleher was appointed as the Chairman of the  board of directors of Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for the upcoming year. Kelleher’s achievements in the aviation industry were recognized with awards such as the ‘Tony Jannus Award for outstanding leadership in the commercial aviation industry’ (1993), the ‘L. Welch Pogue Award for Lifetime Achievement in Aviation’ (2005) and ‘Charles Lindbergh Award for Excellence in aviation’ (2006). He got the ‘Bower Award’ for business leadership in 2003.

Kelleher is married to Joan Negley and has four children.


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