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Incoming Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan speaks with Yahoo Finance

In this article:
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Incoming Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan sits down with Yahoo Finance's Adam Shapiro to discuss his new job.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: I saw in an interview you described yourself as being 80%-- I think it was 80% completely excited and 20% terrified? Why are you terrified?

BOB JORDAN: Well, it's a big job and, above all, people have asked me what did you feel? Or what did you think when you were asked to do this job? And it's not pressure that overwhelms you. What came over me instantly was an incredible desire to do good for our employees.

We have wonderful people. And you want goodness for everybody. They love Southwest Airlines, but they have hopes and desires to buy houses, and send kids to college. And they depend on Southwest Airlines for that livelihood. And you just have an overwhelming desire for goodness for all of our people.

ADAM SHAPIRO: 54,000 right now working with Southwest. You're hiring 5,000 by the end of the year, with halfway there. And then perhaps, another 8,000 next year. That's a lot of responsibility. How do you balance what has always been a corporate culture here, which is employees, and all of the staff, the team members? How do you balance what they need versus what the customers need, versus the shareholders?

BOB JORDAN: Well, there's no doubt that bringing-- just restarting the airline after COVID is tough. I think every company is experiencing that, whether it's people, or chips. The restart has been hard. So we're bringing people back off of leave. We still have a few that are out there that are coming back.

We're hiring, as you described, thousands and thousands. And so it's just a lot to do in that. At the same time, we have an opportunity to bring in those 5,000 this fall, those 8,000 next summer, and really teach them the Southwest way, which is all about how we treat each other, how we serve our customers, humility. And we've got a wonderful opportunity to inculcate those thousands and thousands with the Southwest way, and the Southwest values, just like the 55,000 that are here today.

ADAM SHAPIRO: That's different than the operations at other-- I don't want to see other airlines-- but say at other companies. And it was Herb Kelleher who said, that look, if you take care of the employees, the rest falls into line. That's still very much then the culture here?

BOB JORDAN: It is, absolutely. So everybody has a technical aspect of their job, that they have to learn, and be trained, and be proficient in. But at the same time, the heart of Southwest Airlines are our people, and how they love to serve, how they love to serve each other and our customers. And that's what makes us unique and different. You can teach the technical skill. We really try to hire people who have within them the desire to serve. And that's what makes us unique.

ADAM SHAPIRO: I realize not everybody can fly a plane. But there was a time when--

BOB JORDAN: I cannot fly a plane. That is for sure.

ADAM SHAPIRO: But the pilots would on some occasions would be working the ticket counter. Does that still take place? Everyone kind of chips in where need be.

BOB JORDAN: It does. Obviously, we're large and complex. And the parts are moving quickly every single day. But yeah, I think everybody has a desire for the end product, serving our customers to be the best it can be, and to play their part, and any part that they can to be successful.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Casey Murray, the Pilot Union Leader actually referred to you as a people person, and in an article in June, called you the kind of person who is a fireman, you know, knows how to put out fires. You've had experience lately with the whole airline putting out the fires. How do you balance-- because as a CEO, you have to deal with different negotiating bodies?

BOB JORDAN: You do.

ADAM SHAPIRO: How do you deal with pilots who might not be happy with-- it's a federal mandate, but then they try to get a temporary restraining order over a policy that the airline is trying to implement to comply with the federal mandate, but also to comply with safety.

BOB JORDAN: Well, Casey is a friend. And I think a lot of things are challenging in any company, and especially in airline where you're large and complex, and we do. We're highly unionized. And so those are all challenges. They're all made better though if you have relationships.

It's impossible to make progress without a relationship. It's hard even when you have a terrific relationship. So one of the things I've had a chance to do is have a dinner with all of our union leaders for no reason other than to get to know them, understand their point of view, and understand how we can work better together. And that's the desire. And that's Casey's desire as well.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Any sense of what's coming in 2022 for us who don't like wearing the masks?

BOB JORDAN: The masks are hard. I've been out every Thursday typically in a station. And so that's one day a week. And you wear the mask for 10 hours, 12 hours. And obviously, our crews are doing it every single day. And our customers are doing the same as they fly.

And it's hard. It's hard from just the perspective of wearing it. And then on a service perspective, it just keeps us from being able to show our crew personality to our customers, because they've got the mask on. You can't see a smile through a mask.

So I'm hopeful that when we get to January, the case count will be low, and we'll be able to pull back. But it's not our decision. It's a government decision in terms of that change. At the end of the day, we need to keep people safe. And I'm hopeful that the environment will allow us to do that.

The vaccinate mandate, this is all it's all very personal. And it's very polarizing in some cases. I'm pro-vaccination, simply because I want the pandemic to end. And I think it's the key to ending the pandemic. And I've had my two shots and my booster. But I'm not going to force my opinion on somebody else.

I wish everybody who could would get vaccinated. But it's not my choice. So I think it makes a mandate very hard, because again, this is very personal. But at the end of the day, whatever rule is in place, we will comply. But I'm hopeful that we won't get to that point.

My message has been very simple to our employees. We need you to do one of two things, get vaccinated and give us proof of your vaccination, or seek an accommodation, so that we can review that, and hopefully, approve it. And do that now. Do that quickly. Those two things are what will help us comply and move through the mandate.

But it's complicated. Because people hear all kinds of other messages. We have no intention of laying anybody off. We have no intention of terminating anybody. We have no intention of putting anybody on an unpaid leave. Those are all rumors. That is not what we're going to do at Southwest Airlines. But we need our employees to get vaccinated, or to seek an accommodation.

ADAM SHAPIRO: When I asked you at the beginning, why are you 20% terrified? The airline has an incredibly good brand reputation. I mean, love is the ticker symbol, L- U- V. And the customers appear to love the airline You're going to be the person at the helm of maintaining that. Is that part of your terror? I mean, letting people down can always be disappointing.

BOB JORDAN: You know, and I kind of joked when I said the 80-20, 20% terror. And what you'll find is, I'm a really open person. And I'll basically tell you anything. And it was really more just describing that it's not the job. It's a big job. And it's a job that I had no idea I would whatever would be in line for, and no idea up till it was announced literally that I would be in line for. But I'm going to do my best every single day.

The 20% really is back to the employees. I love our employees. I can't tell you how much I care about them. And I want to do good for them every single day. And so that's where you feel a terrific responsibility on top of the responsibility to our customers to do good for them. Because they rely on us to get them to things that matter in their lives, to weddings, and to visit family on holidays. But no, above all, I want to do good for our employees and our customers.

ADAM SHAPIRO: And as you come into this role as CEO, you've been with the airline 33 years. Many of us are curious, why did you stay 33 years?

BOB JORDAN: I always joke with folks that I turned 30, 40, 50, and unbelievably, 60 at Southwest Airlines. And I never thought that would happen. But it's a wonderful company. And it's a joy to be here.

And do we always agree? No. But we're a family, and we treat each other in the way you would want to be treated. And you can't leave a place like that. And it's given me so much in my life and my family. And I love this company.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You almost didn't get this job. I was reading that it was by accident. There was a problem with the Hewlett-Packard systems on the day of your job interview. Can you just share with us how that kind of cinched that you got the job?

BOB JORDAN: Yeah, that's a funny story. So I started here as a programmer. Did that a couple of years. Wasn't very good at it. But I came to Southwest Airlines for an interview and flew-- because of the [? ride ?] [? amendment ?] at the time had to connect in El Paso to get to Dallas. And so we ended up getting snowed in in El Paso.

So I had an hour on the ground for an interview here. And so we start the interview and somebody came into the office and said, hey, we've got a problem with the HP equipment. I was at Hewlett-Packard at the time. So they didn't have a Hewlett-Packard programmer.

So I went in and clickety clicked and fixed it. And really didn't do an interview. Just flew back to San Francisco. And got a call the next day and said, hey, do you want to come to work and do more of that for us? And I've been here ever since.