As the head of one of the world’s largest airlines, Larry Kellner is flying high. Yet the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Continental Airlines remains remarkably down to earth. Whether it’s serving coffee to a Houston Chronicle reporter (as the reporter noted admiringly in a recent column), deftly managing stakeholders or conducting his many civic and community duties, Kellner stays focused on fundamental values: courtesy, common sense, honesty and building strong relationships with people.
He’ll be quick to tell you that he learned the importance of those qualities early in his career, when he started out with the firm. After graduating in 1981 with a degree in business administration from the University of South Carolina, Kellner spent six years at EY, the last four of them in the Real Estate practice. “Those were very formative years,” he says. “I got an overview of a lot of businesses, and I quickly realized that it was really all about the people. If I walked away with any knowledge from the firm, it was that people are the key to making businesses successful. I formed a number of personal relationships during those years that were invaluable to me throughout my career.”
In particular, Kellner says, he values the mentorship of Tom Testman, a partner at the time who retired from the firm in 1992, and Jeff Misner, who became a partner in 1987 and left the firm five years later. Coincidentally, Misner joined Continental Airlines in 1995 as Vice President of Treasury Operations, eventually becoming Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer before retiring in August 2008. The fact that Misner is also an EY alum shows the strength of the mentoring relationship, Kellner points out.
His mentors are one reason Kellner, who went on to many high-profile jobs after his stint at EY, retains “incredibly fond memories” of the firm. “Those mentors were so helpful for me in figuring out that no matter how bad or difficult the situation was, you had to treat people with dignity and respect,” he says. His advice to young professionals today reflects what he learned from his EY experience: “Be up-front and direct with your colleagues and clients. It may be difficult to give bad news, but it’s important to help people understand what’s really going on. Make sure you build the right relationships with people, engage in honest and direct conversation, and try to add value and be creative. The key to that is finding things to do within the firm that enable you to add more of that value and creativity.”
Grounded in the basics
Kellner certainly wrote the book on adding value. He’s widely praised for his masterful turnaround of Continental Airlines since he joined the troubled company as its CFO in 1995. With a combination of financial acumen, technological savvy, candor in dealing with bankers and investors and attention to customer service, Kellner helped the struggling airline — it was facing its third bankruptcy at the time — take off to new heights. Continental has since won more major awards for customer satisfaction than any other airline. In March 2009, amid the worst economic conditions in decades, it topped Fortune magazine’s annual list of the world’s most admired companies in the airline industry. This is the sixth consecutive year that Continental has been number one on that list.
In his typical understated manner, Kellner describes his team as the force behind his achievements. The secret of his success is “making sure that I’m surrounded by the right people,” he says. “I can’t stress how much of that I learned from EY. Our customer service is driven by our team here. We find the right people and give them the right tools and get out of the way.”
Kellner acknowledges that this strategy may not sound exciting, “but all too often in business, we make it too complicated,” he says. “It’s all about giving people the right tools, the right training and listening skills. If you find the right people, they’ll make the right decisions.”
The same reasoned thinking underlies Kellner’s approach to community engagement. While he’s committed to several causes, he wants to make sure his efforts are varied enough to make an impact. “There have been three key issues out there in the last 20 or 30 years — healthcare, the education of our youth and energy independence,” he says. “I try to look for balance — I wouldn’t want to focus on one to the exclusion of the others. The issues are all tied together.” He serves on the boards of a variety of civic organizations, including Methodist Hospital, the YMCA of Greater Houston, Boy Scouts of America and the March of Dimes. “We have to work together, communities and businesses, for all of us to be successful,” he says. “Corporate leaders today have been criticized for not considering the community.”
With so much on his plate, how does Kellner relax? For him, the answer’s easy: by spending time with his wife and four children, who range in age from 8 to 14. “Fun for me is hanging out with my kids,” he says. “I like to do things with them. For instance, I just saw ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ with my eight-year-old.”