It’s hard to believe that it was 25 years ago when Colleen called 15 Southwest Employees to come together to talk about our Company’s Culture. It was probably the first official meeting where folks sat around and actually discussed this phenomenon. I was very blessed to be a member of that special group that became known as the Companywide Culture Committee. At that time in 1990, our Southwest Family had grown to almost 9,000 Employees, and we were starting to plan for Southwest’s 20th Anniversary. It was the goal of the Committee to ensure our Southwest Culture would continue to grow as we expanded our wings.
For the previous 20 years, it was like magical fairy dust had infused our thoughts, behaviors, and values. From Day One, Southwest Airlines Employees fought very hard for survival. And we never stopped fighting because we knew what we had created was worth fighting for. From Day One, we knew all airlines did the same thing—they fly passengers from Point A to Point B. But we also had this uncanny confidence, or perhaps it was just an audacious attitude, to know that we could be different and stand out from the competition simply by treating our Customers the way they wanted to be treated. We also treated each other with great respect. And we knew how to have FUN with our Customers and each other.
Something else we knew from Day One was that we—every single one of us—had to watch our costs very carefully. In those early days, there wasn’t much money in the bank, and we were like a family living from paycheck to paycheck. But our commitment to our business responsibilities and to each other made us stronger. And just like a family, Southwest Airlines knew it was important to share the profits when they finally came in 1973. That’s when Southwest started the first ProfitSharing Plan in the airline industry, and we’ve been profitable ever since.
After many years, we finally put a name to all these great values. We call them “Living the Southwest Way” with a Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, and FUN-LUVing Attitude. Oh, and we gave that magical fairy dust a name somewhere along the way too. We define it as the Southwest Culture. It probably seems strange for one of the World’s Most Admired Companies to talk about magical fairy dust. The word “Culture” does seem more sophisticated. But I have to confess, I still believe in that fairy dust that seemed to land upon all of the original Employees of Southwest Airlines. And for almost 44 years, we’ve tried to generously sprinkle it on every New Hire who steps through the doors of Southwest Airlines.
I know there are many passionate Employees just like me who believe in this intangible magic that sets us apart, and that’s why hundreds of you have proudly served on the Companywide Culture Committee since its inception 25 years ago! It’s important that we never lose our great Culture or we would be losing the very thing that has made us special and unique from Day One.
Since you now know that I believe in magic, it’s probably not surprising that I also believe in wishes. And my wish for each of you is that you will treasure our remarkable Southwest Culture and will do everything you possibly can to create, enrich, and protect it. After all, who doesn’t want to be a part of this one-of-a-kind LUV story that we call Southwest Airlines!
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Don’t judge me by my next statement until you read to the very end! It’s hard to admit, but I wasn’t thrilled when I became a Southwest Employee in August 1982. Let me explain.
I had been working for Braniff International Airways for several years prior to joining Southwest. I loved my job at Braniff because I could fly all over the world, and I never seemed to have any trouble getting on a flight. Yes, I know that should have been a clue, but I was much younger then, and I certainly didn’t understand the “business” side of an airline. And I don’t recall anyone ever trying to teach me. So, it was quite a jolt to me when Braniff filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 12, 1982, ending 54 years of service. Braniff flights were suddenly grounded and passengers were forced to disembark. All employees were without jobs. An over-aggressive expansion plan, escalating fuel prices, and fierce competition caught up with Braniff. Many dreams were shattered, including mine.
I applied at Southwest because my boss at Braniff knew a former employee who had joined Southwest years earlier, and he had an opening. I desperately wanted my airline career to continue. At the time, Southwest only flew to 19 cities with 37 aircraft and approximately 2,900 Employees so I thought I was “stepping down” when I was hired. Can you imagine my audacity?!
Well, friends, I can say “stepping down” never felt so good. I feel like I’ve been soaring to greater altitudes for the past 29 years. And, yes, I quickly learned that you don’t judge an airline by its number of destinations!
I began my Southwest career in Maintenance, typing purchase orders for aircraft parts using a typewriter. After ten months, I transferred to become the Executive Assistant for the Vice President of Inflight, who was also an attorney. He handled much of Southwest’s legal work. We only had one Crew Base then, and I sat between the Pilot lounge and the Flight Attendant lounge. It was so amazing because I got to know so many of our wonderful Pilots and Flight Attendants.
In March of 1985, I found my calling. Colleen posted a position for Manager of Employee Communications, and I got the job. It was such a proud accomplishment for me to start this department. My first assignment was actually covering the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago when we began service that month. Our Employees, along with Herb and Colleen, marched together and handed out Southwest tickets along the parade route. I loved my new job and have been in some phase of Employee Communications ever since.
My experience at Braniff taught me that it’s important to understand the “business side” of things, and that’s what I want for every Southwest Employee. We are so fortunate to have such incredible Leaders who “teach” us what it takes to be successful. We have so many communication channels that keep us in the know.
As much as I love the art of communication, I treasure the art of creating magic moments for our Employees. And I’m so blessed to have worked on so many memorable events all the way from our 20 th Anniversary to our 40 th Anniversary. From Messages to the Field to Awards Banquets to airplane unveilings, it’s all been so special to me.
I will never forget working on our 500 th aircraft delivery, which coincided with our 36 th Anniversary. We took 36 Employees, who had served our country, to accept delivery and returned home to quite the Southwest celebration. With tear-filled eyes, a Green Beret told me this was the welcome home he never received when he returned from Vietnam. That’s what the magic is all about at Southwest Airlines! It’s all around us. Cherish our great Company so we can continue to create everlasting memories for years to come.
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Our salute to Colleen winds down today, and Tonda explains the significance of the cowbell. The clamoring of cowbells is not what you would expect to hear in the lobby of a Fortune 500 company; but then again, Southwest Airlines is famous for doing the unexpected! The ringing of cowbells has become a popular tradition to cheer on athletes. Yesterday, hundreds of Southwest Employees gathered to cheer not for an athlete, but for someone we affectionately call our “Queen of Hearts.” On this day, Colleen Barrett relinquished her President’s title, and the Employees wanted to honor her in a very meaningful way. So, why the cheerful clamor of cowbells you ask? It’s actually a tradition that dates back to Colleen’s childhood in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Her mother used to ring “this darn cowbell,” as Colleen would say, when she or her brothers accomplished something special or celebrated a certain event. The distinctive sound of that “darn cowbell” marked many milestones. The family home was later destroyed by fire, and they all searched and searched to find that cowbell which brought back memories of happier times. The cowbell did, indeed, survive the fire, as did Colleen, her mother, and her brothers. It was definitely a moment that deserved the clamor of the cowbell. Now fast forward several decades to a black tie event in Tampa honoring the recipient of the Tony Jannus Award. For 45 years, this award has recognized extraordinary accomplishments in the field of commercial aviation. The award is named in honor of the pilot of the first commercial airline flight, which flew from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 1914. On this particular night in October 2007, Colleen became the first female to receive this prestigious award. And do you know what Colleen heard as she stepped upon the stage to receive her award? You guessed it—the cheerful clamor of that darn cowbell! One of Colleen’s brothers was in attendance with other members of the family, and they all rose and proudly rang those cowbells. Colleen told the crowd in attendance about the significance of that cowbell, and how when her mother died that the cowbell was the one thing she and her surviving brother fought over. As Colleen’s Southwest Family gathered in Corporate Headquarters on her last official day as President, we wanted to celebrate this great milestone in her life just the way her mother would have wanted. So from the 34,000 Southwest Family Members, we say, “Job well done, Colleen Barrett.” See you tomorrow!
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