Herb Kelleher, the founder and philosopher of Southwest Airlines, passed away this month at the age of 87.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Mr. Kelleher, was a lawyer who moved from New Jersey to San Antonio to start his own law practice. Then in 1967, one of his clients, Rollin W. King, approached him with what seemed an outlandish idea: starting an airline that could fly passengers cheaply within Texas.
Kelleher’s net worth was estimated at $2.5 billion.
Here he is participating in a recent Q+A:
Bill Taylor, author, and co-founder of Fast Company fondly remembers Kelleher as a great American innovator and business operator.
Here’s what’s so vital for the rest of us to understand about what Herb Kelleher built — the essential piece of his legacy. To him, Southwest Airlines was never just a company. It was a cause. The goal was not just to keep fares low and fly to more cities. The goal, in his words, was to ‘democratize the skies’ — to make it as easy, affordable, and flexible, for average Americans to travel as it had always been for business travelers and the affluent. That mission may seem quaint now (mainly because Kelleher succeeded), but back when he started it was a revolutionary aspiration — and an essential contribution to America’s quality of life.
In other words, it’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for. That’s the title of a book by Texas advertising legend Roy Spence, one of Herb Kelleher’s closest business partners, and the force behind so many of Southwest’s memorable ads.
Brand purpose has plenty of detractors, but no one can argue with Southwest’s success. The airline employs more than 58,000 people today and has been profitable every year except the first two years after the company was founded.
GSD&M helps the brand convey value and get to the heart of matters.
Southwest has always flown to the beat of its own drummer—a reflection of its larger than life founder. It’s an airline with well-defined points of difference that make a difference in people’s lives.
Kelleher’s legacy at Southwest, in Texas and in business is immense. His ability to help people love their jobs is a lesson for the ages. It’s the right thing to do from an operations perspective, and it’s what makes the Southwest brand experience—that millions of travelers rely on and enjoy each year—possible in the first place.