“One piece of advice that always stuck in my mind is that people should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title.”
Early life and career
Kelleher was born in Camden, New Jersey on March 12, 1931 and raised in Audubon, New Jersey, where he graduated from Haddon Heights High School. He has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University where he was an Olin Scholar and where his major was English and his minor Philosophy, and a Juris Doctor from New York University where he was a Root-Tilden Scholar. At Wesleyan he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He is married to the former Joan Negley and they have four children.
The Kellehers moved to Texas intending to start a law firm or a business. Kelleher and one of his law clients, Texas businessman Rollin King, created the concept that later became Southwest Airlines on a cocktail napkin in a San Antonio, Texas restaurant. From its birth in 1971 — after overcoming a year’s worth of legal challenges from competitors who tried to keep it grounded — Southwest succeeded by a strategy of offering low fares to its passengers, eliminating unnecessary services, and avoiding the “hub-and-spoke” scheduling system used by other airlines in favor of building traffic in such secondary airports as Albany, Chicago-Midway (instead of Chicago-O’Hare) and Orange County.
During his tenure as CEO of Southwest, Kelleher’s colorful personality created a corporate culture which made Southwest employees well known for taking themselves lightly—often singing in-flight announcements to the tune of popular theme songs—but their jobs seriously. How different the company culture is can be seen in an arm-wrestling event in March 1992. Shortly after Southwest started using the “Just Plane Smart” motto, Stevens Aviation, who had been using “Plane Smart” for their motto, threatened a trademark lawsuit, which was resolved between Herb Kelleher and Stevens Aviation CEO Kurt Herwald in an arm-wrestling match, now known as “Malice in Dallas”. Southwest has never had an in-flight fatality. Southwest is consistently named among the top five Most Admired Corporations in America in Fortune magazine’s annual poll. Fortune has also called him perhaps the best CEO in America. Kelleher was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2004.
On July 19, 2007, Southwest Airlines announced that Kelleher would step down from the role of Chairman and resign from the board of directors in May 2008, though he would remain a full-time employee for another five years. Kelleher ultimately stepped down as chairman on May 21, 2008. Immediately following, Southwest Airlines named current CEO, Gary C. Kelly the new Chairman of the Board of Directors.
- Tony Jannus Award for outstanding leadership in the commercial aviation industry, 1993.
- Bower Award for Business Leadership, 2003.
- L. Welch Pogue Award for Lifetime Achievement in Aviation, 2005.
- Charles Lindbergh Award for Excellence in aviation, 2006. Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington.