How Gary Kelly Changed Southwest Airlines
The first flight Gary Kelly ever took, to anywhere, was on Southwest Airlines in 1972. He was heading to Houston to visit Rice University, which was recruiting him for its football team. As you might imagine, the six-foot-three quarterback of San Antonio’s Churchill High School took considerable notice of the all-female crew of flight attendants, then called hostesses, who were outfitted in fire-orange hot pants. But, years later, he also recalled that on that Saturday-morning flight, “There were two other people on the plane besides me. So, I thought, this company isn’t going to be around very long.”
Kelly didn’t play for Rice. Instead he got an accounting degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He ended up going to work for Southwest in 1986, as its controller. Three years later, he was chief financial officer, and since 2004 he’s led the airline that he once figured didn’t stand much of chance. He announced on Wednesday that he’s stepping down as CEO next February, when executive vice president Robert Jordan will take on the job. (Kelly will then become executive chairman of the company’s board.)
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The question of who should be considered the most successful chief executive in Southwest’s history might seem to be an easy one. It’s Herb Kelleher, who, along with Rollin King and Lamar Muse, laid the groundwork for the airline to take flight fifty years ago this month. Kelleher is a legend. A maverick. An icon, often as celebrated for his outsized personality—chain-smoking, Wild Turkey–swilling—as for his business acumen.