Web Log : Gordon Bethune

My name is Gordon Bethune. I was the CEO and President of Continental Airlines from 1994 until I retired at the end of 2004. I’m going to speak a bit about how I turned Continental Airlines (the worst airline in the 80’s) into one of the best places to work in America in 1 year of service. I could see Continental’s biggest problems the second I walked in the door in February of 1994. I speak about this in my book (Worst to First, 1998), but It was an awful place to work. Employees were surly to customers, surly to each other, and were ashamed of their company. And it’s impossible to have a good product without people who like coming to work. It’s not possible. Herb Kelleher (former Head of Southwest Airlines) shared my work philosophy. One that was considered heretical at the time. Happy employees, ensure happy customers. And happy customers, ensure happy shareholders – in that exact order. The company had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy twice in just 8 years – once in 1983 and again in 1991. And managed to go through 10 CEO’s in a decade! A search firm hired by Continental's board of directors suggested myself, an Advanced Management graduate from Harvard Business School, to salvage the company. I started by making quick changes to the image of the company. I was driven by the fact that a good airline is due to customer satisfaction, and not the profit margins on each quarterly report. The profit is a by-product of a succeeding business model, not the main goal. I gained the position of CEO in November of 1994, and I was elected chairman of the board of directors in 1996. The company began to thrive under my lead. We won more awards for customer satisfaction from J.D. Power and Associates than any other airline at the time. Fortune Magazine went on to name Continental Airlines as one of the top 100 places to work in America for 6 years in a row. I retired in 2004 making sure that the business model that I had shaped during my time as President of the Company was passed on to my successor. Make no mistake, the publications in the magazines, the profit, the overwhelming number of people who tried to get a job at Continental Airlines… These are all the product of a working business model in which customer satisfaction is placed above the needs of the stockholders directly. You don’t begin by trying to make the stock owners happy, you begin by making the employees happy. Which, in turn, boosts customer satisfaction. Which then makes the stockholders happy. This was the downfall of every CEO who came, in and out, before me. They cared about the wrong things in the wrong order. The most important value in a workplace is one that cannot be measured, and that’s trust. When employees feel protected by their leaders, trust emerges, and the company thrives.