Howard Putnam, who led the fledgling Southwest Airlines in the late 1970s and early 1980s, will present an STN EXPO keynote address this summer following the event’s trade show.
His talk the evening of July 11 at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in Reno, Nevada will center on the concepts of leadership, customer service and the importance of people and culture in creating and sustaining a profitable entity for the long term. “Hire attitudes and develop their skills,” says Putnam, who was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame in 2005.
“I look forward to joining your group on July 11 in Reno,” he told School Transportation News. “We always said at Southwest that we were not an airline. We were in mass transportation and safety. It was our people and culture that made us successful. Seems to me you have the same challenges.”
Putnam was recruited to the 7-year-old Southwest Airlines in the summer of 1978, when the Texas intrastate airlines only operated a fleet of twelve Boeing 737-200 aircraft. In January 1979, the airline deregulation act became effective, giving the airline industry flexibility on pricing and interstate opportunities to serve new destinations. This gave Southwest the ability to expand outside of its home state of Texas for the first time to New Orleans, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque in the next year.
Lamar Muse, who had overseen the company’s initial growth to a million-plus passenger carrier and fought off attempts by bigger airlines to put Southwest out of business at Love Field in Dallas, had resigned as president and CEO in February 1978. This prompted the co-founder and Chairman of the Board Herb Kelleher to reach out to Putnam, who at the time was group vice president of marketing for United Airlines in Chicago.
During Putnam’s tenure, Southwest flew its first flights outside of Texas, grew the fleet to over 20 B737-200 airplanes, celebrated its 10th anniversary, completed three public stock offerings and launched the first self-ticketing machines for passengers. Under Putnam’s leadership Southwest tripled revenues and profitability in three years and became the first airline to place orders for the Boeing 737-300, which later became Boeing’s largest selling aircraft ever.
Perhaps most famously, Howard and his team also further developed the “fun” employee culture and atmosphere on flights that has become the airline’s calling card.
He left Southwest in September 1981 for Braniff International to restructure the financially failing airline. He became the first airline CEO to successfully take a major carrier into, through and out of Chapter 11. Braniff flew again in 1984.
Putnam is the author of The Winds of Turbulence on leadership and ethics. Harvard University wrote a case study on his experiences at Braniff, The Ethics of Bankruptcy as a model on how to handle stakeholders in crisis.
Since then Putnam has served as chairman of a startup investment company and two small manufacturing and distribution companies.
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