Gary Kelly may be the man at the head of the country’s most popular airline, Dallas-based Southwest, but as a teenager his focus wasn’t on the skies; it was on the sea. He planned to study marine biology or oceanography in college, but the lifelong Texan wound up at the University of Texas at El Paso for his freshman year, learning and playing football in what was basically a desert. There was no underwater offering, so he went with a backup plan: accounting.
“Things turned out pretty well,” he says with a chuckle.
While Mr. Kelly eventually transferred to the Austin campus, he stuck with accounting and graduated with a Bachelor’s of Business Administration in the subject. He worked as a certified public accountant for Arthur Young & Company (now Ernst & Young) in Dallas for about seven years out of college, then spent a few years as controller at a software startup known as Systems Center Inc., before he was recruited to join Southwest as its controller in 1986. He was soon promoted to chief financial officer, a post he held for 15 years before becoming the chief executive officer in 2004.
“At this point, I’ve gotten old enough to be one of the longest-serving officers in our history, [with] leadership roles throughout,” said Mr. Kelly, 65. “I feel like I’ve been part of a great family that’s built a great company.”
When Mr. Kelly joined Southwest, it had about 60 planes. Today, it has 750, along with more than 60,000 employees. It’s the nation’s largest domestic air carrier, but it’s still got the trademark “quirky” personality and maverick attitude it was founded on.
The airline also has a special spot in Baltimore’s heart. When it arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport 27 years ago this month, initially flying only to Chicago or Cleveland, it jump-started a revival that transformed BWI from an aging and ailing airport to one that now moves more passengers through each year than its Washington D.C. counterparts. The company also generated billions of dollars for the region’s economy through economic activity and tens of thousands of related jobs.
Southwest is again investing in BWI, but the pandemic has put many of its biggest plans, including more international flights, on ice; overcoming it is the biggest challenge of Mr. Kelly’s career.
“I’ve been here through wars and terrorism and fuel price spikes and brutal competition … the Great Recession of 2008 and ‘09 and even 9/11, and nothing compares to what we’re facing as a world, as a country, as an industry today,” he said.
Still, even as the thousands of flights were grounded by air travel restrictions and people remain reluctant to fly for fear of contracting COVID-19, Southwest has managed to avoid furloughs, paycuts and layoffs. In fact, the company has never laid off a single employee during Mr. Kelly’s tenure or the years that preceded him — among his greatest sources of pride.
“Most businesses believe their customers come first. This is not true at [Southwest Airlines]; employees come first,” said longtime friend William Cunningham. “Gary recognizes that if Southwest takes care of its employees, they will take care of its customers.”
Mr. Cunningham first met Mr. Kelly in 1976, at the University of Texas at Austin, where Mr. Cunningham taught a marketing class. But they really got to know each other starting in 2000, when Mr. Cunningham joined the Southwest Board of Directors. He calls Mr. Kelly a “people person” who cares deeply about his colleagues and employees and their job satisfaction.
“Whenever I fly on SWA, I always visit with the flight attendants,” Mr. Cunningham said. “They all speak of Gary as not only the leader of Southwest Airlines, but an individual that they trust who is trying to make their lives better.”
Ginger Hardage worked for Mr. Kelly for 25 years, from 1990 when she joined the company to her retirement in 2015 as senior vice president for culture and communications. She said he is a man of great integrity who’s going to “incredible lengths to protect the people of Southwest Airlines during the greatest challenge in the history of aviation. His actions speak to his focus on safety, others’ personal well-being and the financial well-being of the airline.”
He is a true leader and student of leadership — “from Churchill to Herb Kelleher,” she said.
But family is his top priority. He met his wife, Carol, in 8th grade, and they married during their senior year in college at the University of Texas at Austin, where Carol studied elementary education. The couple has two daughters and four grandchildren, who know them as Nanny and Poppy.
His goal now is to ensure that Southwest emerges from the pandemic in a healthy state by continuing to hold himself to the same high standards he’s set for everyone else.
“Our people are very resilient,” he said. But “we’re very far from being out of the woods. It’s a story in the making.”
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Current residence: Dallas, Texas
Education: University of Texas at Austin, B.B.A. in accounting
Career highlights: Southwest Airlines, CEO and chairman, formerly controller, CFO, president. Before joining Southwest, he was controller for Systems Center Inc. and a CPA for Arthur Young & Company, now Ernst & Young
Civic and charitable activities: Member of the Board of Directors of the Lincoln National Corporation and Airlines for America, the airline industry advocacy group (serving as chairman from 2012 — 2014). Board of Regents member for the National Air and Space Museum and member of the Business Council and the Southwestern Medical Foundation Board of Trustees