TopVet: Gordon Bethune, Continental Airlines

Gordon Bethune

Gordon M. Bethune, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Continental Airlines, the nation’s fifth largest air carrier, is the longest serving CEO of a major U.S. airline. In the ‘90s, he was widely credited with turning around the once-faltering airline. And as the travel industry itself turns around after the downturn following 9/11, Bethune is once again leading his airline to a profitable recovery.

Under his leadership, Continental has undergone one of the most dramatic business turnarounds of the ‘90s and is poised for a solid future: Mr. Bethune was ranked sixth among the 50 best CEOs in America by "Worth" magazine in 1999. And for the sixth straight year, Continental is ranked by "Fortune" magazine as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America.

After dropping out of high school at age seventeen, he joined the Navy, serving for twenty years. In 1979, a year after returning to civilian life, he was hired by Braniff Airlines. Over the next nine years, he held senior management positions at Braniff, Western Airlines and Piedmont Airlines and earned a bachelors’ degree in general studies from Abilene Christian University, in Dallas. In 1988 he joined Boeing where he rose to become Vice President and general manager of its Renton Division. In February 1994, he was hired away by Continental and became CEO nine months later.

In a July 2000 article in Texas Monthly, Mr. Bethune recounts the value of his Naval experience:

"I was in the Navy, and by default, I got promoted to petty officer second class. I supervised the second shift, which worked from seven at night to seven in the morning. We were airplane mechanics, but I was in charge. I had to get these other eight guys to help me fix all these airplanes; I couldn’t do it by myself. I was very good at it because I treated them the way I wanted to be treated.

I learned that you can be successful if you get people to help you become successful. You’re going to be in charge of an organization or a shift of workers or something that’s going to require cooperation to run it well. And the only way you’re going to get that is to openly acknowledge and appreciate the contribution of others to the success of whatever it is you’re doing. So every time somebody gives you an award, you have to let it be known that it wasn’t you, it was all these other people who’ve done this wonderful job. And they sit up straight and feel real good, and the next day they work harder to help you be successful."

Mr. Bethune is a licensed commercial pilot, type-rated on Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft as well as the DC-3. He is also licensed as an airframe and power plant mechanic. In addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Abilene Christian University at Dallas, Mr. Bethune is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program.

Today, more than two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. airlines are showing signs of strength after persistently low demand and cheap airfares. And just last quarter, Continental was one of the first to report a profit since 9/11. Mr. Bethune is once again meeting the challenge against tremendous odds as Continental’s savior.

Along with the $133 million net profit, Continental saw third quarter revenue rise 8.6 percent to $2.4 billion, as the miles flown by paying passengers rose 3.2 percent. And with fourth quarter results due out within days, analysts expect the mending trend to continue.

Mr. Bethune tells the story of the turnaround in his book, From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback - A Flight Plan for Success , written with Scott Huler and published in 1998 by John Wiley & Sons.

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