A Tribute to Gordon Bethune
What follows is the text of my introductions of two of the most important CEOs in Continental Airlines' history. The task was ENTIRELY my honor!
My name is Tony Reece. I recently became a Flight Attendant for the NEW UNITED AIRLINES...based right here, in Houston Texas.
More importantly in view of tonight's proceedings, I am a PROUD ALUMNUS of one of the greatest airline success stories in history:
Maybe you've heard of it.
I flew almost 30 years for CONTINENTAL AIRLINES.
What a wonderful opportunity this is for us to get together tonight and be a family, one more time! The Continental family.
Special thanks to our host and organizer of tonight's event, my long-time friend Chris Valkoff. My partner Philip has described Chris as "the real deal" and I don't think I could say it any better! Chris is one of the truest human beings I know and tonight is just his way of expressing how he feels about us, HIS Continental family.
Thank you, Chris.
One more thing. Because you and I have "special insights" into what it takes to perform a "ballet", let's acknowledge the staff of the HYATT. We know firsthand that hospitality can be a very tough business!
Thank you for helping to make our reunion a special evening.
Let's do what we do and TALK AIRLINE!
An airline is often thought of as a "non-business" business. Fortunes are fickle, margins are slim, and reputation is just about everything. Traditionally, the relationship between airline management and airline labor would PRECLUDE them, either past or present, from wanting to enjoy each other's company "after hours".
Yet here we are, gathered for that very purpose: to enjoy each others' company, to reminisce about what was, to celebrate what we accomplished together and to ACKNOWLEDGE the greatness of the leadership that it was our PRIVILEGE to follow!
Tonight, we are privileged indeed to be in the company of two of the most pivotal chief executives in Continental's storied history. Together, they put into action the four cornerstones of the GO FORWARD PLAN which ushered CONTINENTAL from worst to first. That was a ride that we all shared and it won't be soon forgotten.
Ask yourself this question...
What path would be best if you were tasked with following one of the most flamboyant, talked about CEOs in American business into the leadership role of America's leading full-service airline? Our first special guest faced that unenviable task. He guided CONTINENTAL on the sure and steady path, protecting our reputation for excellence. Under his tutelage, CONTINENTAL remained the last truly FULL SERVICE major airline in America. We offered complimentary meals at mealtime, snacks the rest of the time, and we didn't charge for every other component of our service the way all of our competitors did.
We NEVER took the cheese off of the pizza!
It was a proud time. We were proud to say that we were CONTINENTAL. And contrary to conventional airline wisdom about labor and management, we were PROUD to proclaim that men like LARRY KELLNER were our bosses!
Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud indeed to introduce my former boss from the glory days of CONTINENTAL AIRLINES,
MR. LARRY KELLNER
Speaking to you tonight about the man that we're here to honor is one of the easiest tasks I've ever had to perform.
When Chris first asked me, I thought, "why me?" But the real question is, "why not me?" Or why not ANY of us. Who BETTER than we to honor what a singular human being has done for all of us gathered here tonight and for so many others who aren't?
The man that I'm here to introduce to you needs no introduction...certainly not to us. He can be described in many ways and, to his credit, MOST of them are actually flattering. Pioneer, businessman, maverick...his name will fit so easily among an elite group of others who have made such a tremendous impact on aviation history: Eddie Rickenbaker, Juan Trippe, Pat Patterson, even our own, BELOVED ROBERT F. SIX. In fact, I think that Mr. Six, in particular, would be most pleased to have his name mentioned in the same context as that of the man who helped guide Continental back to its proper place in the annals of commercial aviation history. He would be proud indeed.
So many great, recognizable airline names now exist only in history: Ozark, Eastern, Western, TWA, Northwest, and even PanAm. Now, to that list we sadly add CONTINENTAL. But what makes CONTINENTAL UNIQUE among these other great aviation legacies is that SHE went out on TOP! When CONTINENTAL ceased to be, there was no cause to hang our heads, no reason to feel as though we had failed. In fact, we were at the very top of our game!
Whom do we thank for that distinction?
When we think of another person, we often think of him or her in terms of their relationship to us. What word immediately comes to you when you think of our guest of honor?
The word that comes to my mind is "friend".
How else do you describe someone who has had your back when you were in the ABSOLUTE A-BYSS? How do you describe someone who looks at you and yours and sees only the good, the capable, the potential, the possibility of what COULD be? How do you describe the man who holds the mirror of reality up in front of you and says, "why can't you see what I see? I know you've been beaten down. I know that the glory days of Continental are a distant and fading memory. But if you could just look into this mirror and see what I see, you would KNOW that the BEST IS YET TO COME! I'm not a loser or a quitter and I don't hang around with losers or quitters. Let's roll up our sleeves and together, side-by-side, let's make this airline what it can and should be!"
That's what I remember, that's what I felt.
That's the TRUE MEASURE of the man who, together with you and me, took Continental Airlines on a trip that most of us could only dare to dream about; a trip so spectacular that books have been written about it and business school curricula have been rewritten to include it. All along the way, our friend made sure to give US the credit.
So if we regard this man as our friend, then our friendship is dependent upon the key element of any important relationship...the element of trust. When he arrived at the revolving door of the Continental CEO's office in the early 1990s, how many of us here can honestly say that we trusted him? So many others before had made promises. So many others before had failed to deliver. What made this man different? We likely each have our own test with which to answer that question.
Whatever the answer, TRUST we did and the result was pure FUCKING magic! There's no other explanation.
When the time came for him to leave the CEOs office, he did so against our wishes. He left a legacy of trust and faith and goodwill for the gentlemen who immediately followed him into that office. What a legacy!
His departure was not the END of our friendship...not by a long shot. He goes out of his way to stay in touch and we eagerly wait for his next move, his next iteration, his next validation that WE are some of the most important people in his life.
I believe that. Do you?
How many of our past CEOs have donated a million dollars to a fund that directly benefits their former colleagues in need? Why did he do it? I think the answer is simple really: it's the sort of thing that friends do. True friends are always there when you need them without the expectation of ANYTHING in return.
It's the sort of thing that cannot be repaid but should never go unacknowledged. So, tonight, on behalf of all of us gathered here and so many who aren't, I wish to THANK GORDON BETHUNE for that gift and for SO many others that he has so generously bestowed on his FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES, the men and women of CONTINENTAL AIRLINES.
Thank You Gordon for your generous gift, for your faith in us, your trust in us,
And more than anything else for your continued friendship.
Rest assured that your friendship is not and will not be forgotten.
For the rest of us, We have a challenge. Those who have benefited from a brush with greatness have an obligation to "pay it forward." Our reality has changed significantly since the time that we were lead to greatness by our friend. Our newest colleagues have never had the benefit of that kind of leadership, that kind of friendship, and they are skeptical, just as we once were.
Are you prepared to borrow the mirror of reality and help them to see what we've been shown?
What better acknowledgement of the gifts we have received than to pass them on!
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my distinct honor to present to you, our FRIEND, Mr. Gordon Bethune.