Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: US Airways
Describe your very first job and what lessons you learned from it.
My first job was as a bagger at a Kroger store in Michigan. I started part-time the day I turned 16, but then went full-time in the summer the day after school got out. I did basic bagger duties — bagging groceries, collecting carts from the parking lot, etc. While most people preferred to stay inside and bag, I was always quick to volunteer to get carts, as I preferred the more physical work. It was a good experience, primarily because it taught me a work ethic at an early age. It helped me see what life was like in the real world and gave me a true appreciation of the value of putting in an honest day’s work. I also learned that if you put the cookies on the bottom of the bag, customers get upset.
Describe your first job in your industry and what you learned from it.
My first job in the industry was a financial analyst at American Airlines in 1986. I took this entry-level position straight out of business school in 1986. It was a great first job because American hired a lot of MBAs into finance, so it was both easy to get acclimated with other new hires and also a great place to learn the industry from a lot of talented professionals who had been in the business for a while. I also liked beginning in finance, because it allowed me to learn a little bit about the entire company and how it all fit together versus learning a lot about one certain area. That broad scope was helpful in allowing me to understand how the airline business worked in a relatively short period of time.
What were your salaries at both of these jobs?
Three dollars an hour at Kroger and $34,000 at AA.
Who is your biggest mentor and what role did they play?
I have had a number of great bosses over my career and I learned a lot from each of them. If I had to choose a single mentor in our industry though, I’d pick a person I never worked for, Herb Kelleher of Southwest (Airlines). I, like many people, have admired how Herb has built Southwest to be a successful airline with a true team spirit and camaraderie that other airlines haven’t ever been able to accomplish. I like how he has done so by communicating with his employees and making sure not to take himself too seriously. Over the past seven or eight years, I’ve gotten to know Herb well through industry associations, and whenever we’re together, I work very hard to observe what he does and how he thinks about situations – it’s served me well and I’m thankful that he’s given me that opportunity
What advice would you give to a person just entering your industry?
I would tell them that this is a great industry because virtually every management discipline is important and valued. Marketing is important because it’s a customer service business; operations is obviously important because there is arguably no more complex a series of operating issues than at an airline; finance is important because the business is so capital intensive; maintenance is essentially a very complex manufacturing organization, etc., etc. As a result, I think we have areas for everyone to make a real difference, which is not true of most industries. So I always recommend that unless people really know what they want to do, they should start in an area where they can learn a little about the entire company and then over time gravitate to the area they find the most interesting. I also advise them that this business is not for the faint of heart; it’s very dynamic and a bit like a roller coaster ride — but if you like action, change and a lot of moving parts (like most of us here do), you’ll love it.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing instead?
I’m not sure since I’ve never worked outside of this industry, but my guess is I’d be doing something similar in a different industry. While I love airlines, I’m not the CEO because I know so much about this business — there are many people in our company who know much more about airlines and airplanes than I do. Most of what I do is find the best people I possibly can and make sure they are engaged and motivated and working together as a team to accomplish our collective objectives. It’s that team-building piece that I enjoy, and I imagine if I weren’t here, I’d be somewhere else where those skills were important.