Southwest CEO: Positive workplace, customer
service keys to leadership excellence

Dressing up as Hairspray’s Edna Turnblatt on Halloween is just a bit part the towering Gary Kelly, CEO and vice chairman of the board of Southwest Airlines, plays in his management role to ensure the company provides a pleasant workplace for employees.

Aside from parading around in make-up and size 14 pumps, Kelly said among his guiding principles of leadership strategy are empowered employees, emphasis on teamwork, competitive salaries and excellent customer service. Kelly shared his formula for success with Fisher College of Business MBAs and Ohio State aviation students who gathered at Pfhal Hall on May 7 for the Leadership and Professional Development’s Sander Flaum lecture.

“We are very passionate about customer service. We don’t just want to be low fares with lousy service. We want to be great service with low fares. We continue to aspire to that to this day.”

Gary Kelly
CEO and vice chairman,
Southwest Airlines

Kelly began his career with Southwest in June 1986 as controller. He was promoted to chief financial officer and vice president of finance in 1989, and to executive vice president in 2001. He was appointed to his current role in July 2004.

Kelly said that Southwest, long dubbed, the “no-frills” airline, is now exceeding its competitors in the free amenities it provides passengers.

“We are very passionate about customer service,” he said. “We don’t just want to be low fares with lousy service. We want to be great service with low fares. We continue to aspire to that to this day.”

Kelly credits the company success to employing talented people. “We wouldn’t have great service without great people. We try to employ people who care. And we are very, very focused on trying to make Southwest Airlines a great place to work.”

The airline industry has been “littered with financial failures over the years,” Kelly said, adding that this current time period is the most difficult decade in aviation history. Citing Sept. 11 terror attacks, safety regulation overhaul, rapidly escalating fuel prices, labor disputes and the recent unprecedented back-to-back bankruptcy filings in one week, Kelly said the industry is going through dramatic changes.

Despite that, Southwest is succeeding where other airlines have failed. “Southwest has been able to mitigate those drifts. We have been profitable every single year for 35 years,” he said.

“We also have been profitable, while at the same time we have been able to take care of our people,” Kelly said. “That is a component that makes us feel like a winner, not just because we are profitable.”

To drive home the point of Southwest’s dedication to making work fun, at the end of Kelly’s lecture airline staff selected students to compete in a contest. For his first-place finish in a race to inflate an airplane balloon hat and place it on his head, Ronny Kamal, a first-year MBA student, won a free-roundtrip airline ticket.