An Interview with Hollis Harris
by Michael Manning
We talk to an influential and gentlemanly personality, a real people person, who shaped today's Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines, Air Canada, and World Airways.
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In the February issue of Airways magazine, I had the pleasure of interviewing a true Southern gentleman. After more than three decades at Delta Air Lines, Hollis Harris left the company as president and Chief Operating Officer to lead Continental Airlines, following the departure of controversial CEO, Frank Lorenzo.
For roughly half of my life, I've been a broadcaster, writer and a musician. Or as Canada's host of Q (CBC Radio & TV), Jian Ghomeshi writes of himself on Twitter, "in that order, for now". There is more than a kernel of truth to this. During the sixth-grade, I knew that I wanted to somehow fold these three roles into one career. Let's face it. Who among us is not a proverbial "work in progress"?
When I entered broadcasting, I did so after serving in Public Relations with a non-profit organization. Part of my responsibilities involved appearing on radio and television public affairs programs--41 of them in 13 months. In the mosaic of broadcasting, my business reporting dove-tailed with the print medium after I joined Airways magazine as a contributing editor. During this hectic time, I was given a mandate by the broadcasting station where I worked to create and host a cultural affairs program that doubled as a music magazine. There was a revolving door of guest interviews in the visual and (mostly) performing arts. This worked out pretty well because I enjoy transforming interviews into casual visits, often over a cup of Starbucks.
(Image Courtesy of Starbucks)
The Business section of USA Today (and other newspapers) reads like a drama to me, and I'm serious when I say this. The personalities "behind the scenes" often appear like a movie script. There are heroes and villains. At some point in my life, I became fascinated with what motivated the so-called "mover and shakers".
(Image Courtesy of Penguin Group)
Carly Fiorina's tenure as CEO at Hewlett Packard involved transforming a dysfunctional corporate culture during a merger with Compaq. These were dramatic events. The commercial aviation industry is no different.
Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson famously said, "If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline". Sir Richard (incidentally, he prefers to be called "Richard", but I respectfully include this salutation in the interest of accuracy) is every bit as fascinating as a personality to me as Apple founder Steve Jobs, musician Neil Young, or Canadian-born conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson--whom I enjoyed interviewing over a cup of Starbucks coffee. I also showed her my impression of Groucho Marx entering a door way from the hall by stomping my foot on the floor with an open hand and arm gesture. Keri snapped a Polaroid photo of me in the act, then to her credit said, "Hey, show me how to do that!" I snapped a Polaroid of her in the spirit of great fun!
(Photo Courtesy of IMG Artists)That morning, Keri-Lynn, a beautiful lady, was dressed in cowboy boots, jeans and a white T-shirt. We shared some good laughs that morning. Years later, I rested my chin on the balcony of the Mezzanine at a Mid-West concert hall and listened to her deliver a pre-concert talk describing the 20th Century work she would conduct by composer Michael Hersh called "Ashes of Memory". Keri-Lynn is as fascinating to me as any author, composer, musician, producer, actor, cable television host, screenwriter, astronaut, ballet dancer, movie icon, asset manager, magician or comedian I've ever interviewed. All of which is to say that broadcasting, writing and music are broad labels. But within their disciplines are some enormously interesting people I've been very fortunate to visit with--or if you prefer--to "interview".
My guess is that anyone reading this post has flown an airline out of necessity, without spending time to think about the people and events that are a part of its history. The Delta Air Lines Hollis Harris influenced was the epitome of Southern grace and politeness. He valued the feelings and opinions of everyone at Delta, from janitors to passengers and colleagues in the board room. Every person's opinion was equally important, and Hollis was genuinely interested in listening to what each person had to say. The world isn't the same today.
The Delta Air Lines (yes, this is how the company has always spelled its name) of today is the world's second-largest carrier. It's also more complicated. Delta owns a refinery in Pittsburgh. It swallowed up Northwest Airlines in 2008 and today, flies all over the world.
Just the same, a week before flying home on Delta for Christmas, my cell phone rang as I sat inside a diner for brunch. A small plate of whole wheat pancakes with Vermont Maple syrup was placed in front of me when my cell phone rang. I didn't immediately recognize the caller from Georgia, but the Southern accent soon gave away his identity. "Is this Michael Manning?", the caller asked. "Yes, but who is this?", I replied. "Hollis Harris". "What?" "Hollis Harris. Is this Michael?" Upon grasping the moment, I immediately left my pancakes, walked to a secluded area of the diner and proceeded to have a fun conversation with a living legend--although Hollis doesn't see himself as one. We spoke about driving, my hometown and reading books. I was genuinely amused when Hollis said, "May I ask you something? What in the world made you decide to interview me? I mean, I was so surprised when I read a copy of our interview you mailed me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I had to ask". I told Hollis that, basically, I'd read about him in books, newspapers and magazines for years and admired him for being 'the real deal'. "Regrettably, there just aren't many exciting CEO's left anymore who are truly interesting", I said. I meant it.
(Photo: Courtesy of Continental Airlines)
Gordon Bethune retired from Continental Airlines in 2004. He has a Southern drawl too, and I took some heat from some readers after interviewing him, because--as one reader wrote--I "had the audacity" of quoting his bad language, (although I personally found it funny) when he used it to describe some absolutely stupid business practices he didn't like.
(Image Courtesy of Texas Monthly)
Herb Kelleher, the retired chairman and co-founder of Southwest Airlines was also a hoot for me, taking questions at a press dinner with a beer in once hand and a cigarette in the other. A lawyer who is "smart as a whip", Herb famously dressed as Elvis in a jumpsuit, and appeared on the cover of Texas Monthly magazine. Hollis Harris talks about both men in my interview.
That's it in a nutshell. I love people. I love a good story. And I love music. Welcome to 2013!