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Delta takes flight again with new CEO

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In 2004, Delta Air Lines needed a new leader. Like other airlines, it was struggling to stay afloat after the 9/11 attacks disrupted air travel.

Gerald Grinstein, then 71, embraced the opportunity to turn Delta around. At the time, he was serving on Delta’s board of directors after a successful run as CEO of Western Airlines.

A year after accepting the CEO job, Grinstein took Delta into bankruptcy. He cut $3 billion in expenses—a huge undertaking that required difficult decisions such as laying off thousands of employees and shrinking the pension and health care benefits of the remaining workforce.

Grinstein shared in their sacrifice. He cut his own pay significantly, along with his senior executive team’s compensation. In 2006, the year he took Delta out of bankruptcy, he earned $337,500 a year—less than his top two direct reports.

Many CEOs who nurse a company back to financial health eventually enjoy a big payday. But Grinstein refused to accept millions of dollars that the board approved for rescuing Delta. Instead, he used that money to launch a charity fund for employees in need.

To unify the company, Grinstein mobilized employees to rally against a proposed $9 billion hostile takeover by US Air­­­ways in late 2006. Delta pilots and other employees converged on Wash­­ing­­ton, D.C., to support Grinstein when U.S. senators held hearings to evaluate the deal.

Thanks to Grinstein’s aggressive lobbying, the senators rejected the deal.

“I think [Grinstein] did a damn good job presenting his case, and that did help to derail” the merger, said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). “He saved his company.”

— Adapted from “Gerald Grinstein helped pull Delta out of nosedive,” Del Quentin Wilber, www.seattletimes.com.

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