S+B: Not to deny the importance of intangibles, but what’s the source of Southwest’s cost advantage?
KELLEHER: The cost advantage is very important because we started out with a philosophy that we were going to charge low fares, come hell or high water. We were going to enable more people to fly. It didn’t matter whether we had competition or not. In other words, we just said we’re a different type of cat. When we get a load factor that gets into the 70 or 75 percent range over an appreciable period of time, we don’t increase fares. We add flights and put additional seats in. So if you come from that basic position, that this is what you are, then of course you have to have low costs.
Now, how do you get low costs? Through a lot of things, including the inspiration that you give your people, their productivity, the fact that they feel that they’re doing something that is really significant and that they enjoy. If you take all of Southwest’s compensation together — wage rates, profit sharing, the full 401(k) match, the stock options that our people have — Southwest employees are the most highly compensated people in the airline industry. One of our pilots just retired with $8 million in his profit-sharing account. Now, you have to do well to produce that.
Meeting Life’s Needs
S+B: A compensation scheme based on stock is great when the company is doing well. But when the stock doesn’t do well, you can have a motivation problem.
KELLEHER: Absolutely, that is a risk. So we don’t just give people stock options. We have an educational team that goes around and explains to them what stock options are, how they work, the fact that it’s a longer-term investment. From 1990 to 1994, the airline industry as a whole lost $13 billion. Southwest Airlines was profitable during that entire time, but our stock was battered. Eighty-four percent of our employees continued with Southwest Airlines stock during that four-year period. That’s the kind of confidence and faith that you have to engender, so people have a longer-term view, and they’re not trying to outplay the market every day.
S+B: Virtually all of the major U.S. airlines have tried to copy you at some point. None of them has come remotely close. What’s so hard? It looks like it ought to be a pretty simple model.
KELLEHER: We’ve had many airlines that professed that they were going to be low-fare carriers. There’s only one problem: They had high costs. You can do that, but Chapter 11 is your destiny.
I think the difficulty for them is the cultural aspect of it. That cannot be duplicated. One of the things that demonstrates the power of people is when the United Shuttle took out after us in Oakland. They had all the advantages. I mean, they had first-class seats for those who don’t want to fly anything but first class. They had a global frequent flyer program, which we did not have. They probably spent $25 million or $30 million on their advertising campaign. I probably have something like a thousand letters at my office that tell you why they finally receded from Oakland. Those letters say, “Herb, I tried them, but I just like your people more, so I’m back.” Don’t ever doubt, in the customer service business, the importance of people and their attitudes.
S+B: So now we’re back to the intangibles — the “spirit” competitors can’t go buy. How does a company create a culture like that?
KELLEHER: We used to have a corporate day. Companies would come in from around the world and they were interested in how we hired, trained, that sort of thing. Then we’d say, “Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well,” and then they’d go home disappointed. It was too simple.