He drank, smoked, and was good fun, but Herb was still a high-flyer

Herb Kelleher.

He drank whisky every day, and a lot of it. He smoked, ditto. He doesn’t seem to have slept a lot. And yet, when he died, last week, he was 87 years of age and had led a monumentally successful and apparently happy life. He appears to have been that infuriating exception that proves every rule of health promotion.

Except, to give him his due, he was never overweight.

The other maddening thing about Herb Kelleher was that he never shut up. When he wasn’t laughing, which was often, he was talking. Miraculously, those who worked for him didn’t mind how much he talked, whereas most subordinates of non-stop-talkers hate it.

It doesn’t matter if your discourse is scholarly or demotic, witty or wooden, conceptual or concrete. Comes a time, whether or which, when your listeners passionately wish you to stick a sock in it, or, failing self-sock-administration, would — had they the courage — willingly remove one or both of their own socks and stick them deeply in your ever-moving mouth.

One of the reasons employees have problems with managers who talk all the time is that they’re confusing. When they’re being briefed, the subordinate or colleague may have a clue, early on, as to what is required of them, but as the Great Wall of Verbiage builds, they lose that clue, plus the will to live.

People who work with uncontrollable talkers develop avoidance behaviours: “OK, I have to go up to Billy’s office now, but I’ll bring my phone and if I’m not back here in an hour, ring me. Make it ring three times, then ring off, then go again. I’ll warn him I have to leave the phone on, because an emergency might happen in the Roscrea plant and that the emergency call will have a special code.”

The talker usually knows they talk a lot. But that’s usually the way they see it: that they talk a lot, not that they talk way too much. They say it in a self-admiring way: ‘I know I’m a bit of a talker.’ One well-known perp used to claim he did all of his thinking out loud, which obviously made sense to him, since he tended to reach good conclusions and run his organisation efficiently.

His workmates, however, ran the gamut from stressed to semi-homicidal, with the result that he had high staff turnover, although the ones who got away always spoke affectionately about him.

Hell of a talker, though, they would add.

Kelleher, the smoking (40 a day, even after he suffered prostate cancer,) drinking (Wild Turkey bourbon, sipped throughout the day) head of SouthWest Airlines, was a hell of a talker, but he was a hell of businessman, too. Kelleher was “Grand Master Yoda of low fares airlines”, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary said in response to his death last week.

He was the leader, the visionary, and the teacher: Without Herb, there would be no Ryanair and no low-fares airlines anywhere.

O’Leary is dead right about that. From the 1960s, the concept of no-frills, cheap air travel had been floating around. Everybody liked the idea. One of its proponents was a British operator, named Freddie Laker, who had bought up post-war surplus airplanes and created money-making freight carriers out of them.

When it came to low-cost passenger travel, it was Laker who, appropriately enough, in the swinging 1960s, branded the ‘Skytrain’ concept, whereby an intending passenger would pitch up at an airport in much the same way as a train traveller would turn up at a railway station, buy a one way ticket, bring their own meal, hop on in Heathrow, and hop off in JFK.

Great idea. Great idea which — sadly for Laker — united, for one brief but viciously effective period, the forces of state regulation and the cabal-competitiveness of full-fare international airlines. Stuart Eizenstat, chief White House domestic policy advisor to former US president Jimmy Carter when the latter was examining possible airline deregulation, wrote last year that Laker’s Skytrain was “forced into bankruptcy in 1982 by his own over-expansion and the predatory low-cost fares that his established competitors offered to undercut his popular Skytrain”.

The US government’s contemporaneous favouring of the aviation status quo played a major role, too.

Meanwhile, Kelleher and his best pal, Rollin King, were taking a different approach to low-cost aviation. Kelleher — of Irish descent on both sides — was just as tough on the cost-cutting as O’Leary, the man who followed his example. On one occasion, Kelleher even ordered the removal of three peanuts from the packets served for free on SouthWest Airlines, back when airlines didn’t worry about allergies.

Three peanuts, multiplied by the number of passengers, multiplied by the number of flights, made a difference to the bottom line.

The two created a low-cost model that proved sustainably profitable and which made SouthWest the biggest domestic carrier in the US. That model was based on a number of breathtakingly simple principles. If, for example, you want your planes to spend only 20 minutes on the ground between flights, it helps mechanics do a speedy turnaround if all of your planes are exactly the same. So, Kelleher bought a uniform fleet of planes.

But the model was much, much more than peanuts and planes. It was also about people. The employees were precisely that: Employees. Permanent and pensionable. Not contract workers.

Kelleher’s folk were well-paid and had good health insurance. He spent time with them. Fun time. He would show up in a weird costume or load luggage alongside ground crew, cracking jokes with them.

Once safety was assured, his crew were allowed to play, some of the smaller hot-pants-wearing stewards secreting themselves in overhead bins to go “boo!” at passengers. He never claimed a ‘lean in’ philosophy towards women. But a woman who joined the company as his secretary went right up through the ranks to become corporate president.

Nor did he buy into the notion that, after seven or eight years at the top, you should move on. Nope. He was executive chairman at Southwest for 30 years, having been CEO for 20.

O’Leary always credits Herb as the inspiration for the transformation of European air travel, although he doesn’t seem to have bought into Herb’s idea that if you treat your staff extra well, they treat customers extra well and so, even if those customers are flying on the cheap, they don’t hate the experience. If O’Leary hadn’t ignored that one, Ryanair probably wouldn’t be Which? magazine’s current pick as the worst airline serving UK airports.

“A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear,” Herb once said. It sounds so sweetly naïve. Until you look at what it achieved for Kelleher, his people, and his customers.

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