United Chief Cleared for Landing Change in Airline's Corporate Culture among Greenwald's Lasting Legacies as CEO

By Comerford, Mike | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 17, 1999 | Go to article overview

United Chief Cleared for Landing Change in Airline's Corporate Culture among Greenwald's Lasting Legacies as CEO


Comerford, Mike, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Mike Comerford Daily Herald Business Writer

Corporate culture is important to a man like Gerald Greenwald; he's moved through so many himself that he's intimate with its powers.

Chairman and chief executive officer of UAL Corp., he has led the world's largest publicly-owned airline for five years and now is readying to stand down next month for successor James Goodwin.

There are many measures of a CEO's accomplishments, including stock price, sales increases, profitability. At UAL, each has improved in the last five years.

Yet Greenwald points to the gradual change he has brought about in the corporate culture at United Airlines, which has turned from fractious to what he depicts as more cooperative.

"When I first came here, the officers of this company were very experienced and very hard working and they still are experienced and hard working, but now they are a team," Greenwald said during an extended interview at the Elk Grove Township-based airline's corporate headquarters.

"How we conduct our business and how we treat each other has made a big difference," Greenwald said. "The (employee stock ownership plan) gave us the opportunity to shift authority far down the line in the company so that people dealing with customers ... could work together better and faster as opposed to counting on the brain power of the people running the company."

It is a time of reflection for the 64-year-old Greenwald as he contemplates his past and life after United.

By any measure, he has had a stellar business career. Rising through the ranks of Ford Motor Co. and later Chrysler Corp., he has in his time been an automobile executive, an investment banker, a real estate developer and, finally, an airline executive.

He has lived in seven countries and 15 homes. In his time off, he enjoys rodeo riding and once vacationed in the Canadian Arctic Circle with Eskimos.

Having moved through so many worlds, corporate and geographic, Greenwald's emphasis on corporate culture is understandable.

At United, it contrasts significantly from the culture he was introduced into five years ago.

At the time, the airline had lost an estimated $1.3 billion over the prior three years. Management openly speculated on whether the airline would have to be split up. Pilots and mechanics unions were vocal about their mistrust of management.

To settle their differences, employees agreed to wage concessions in return for UAL stock, giving the employees a 56 percent ownership stake.

"When he came, he was really managing in uncharted waters," said Mike Glawe, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "We've lived in the same industry as other (airlines) and had many of the same issues of labor and management to confront and yet we've found solutions and avoided the bumps in the road that they have had."

His achievements, Greenwald said, can be credited to concentrating his efforts on a small number of big projects.

"If I was going to give one word of advice to CEOs, presidents, senior management ... it would be to try to find three or four things you're going to champion," he said.

Greenwald's "three or four things" began with a comprehensive business plan. Updated every year, he credits the plan with keeping management prepared to act quickly at any sign of one of the industry's infamous cyclical turnarounds.

The Star Alliance has been another priority and one of Greenwald's acknowledged successes. The alliance is a group of eight international airlines sharing flight information, ticketing and frequent flier miles.

Greenwald also has taken on distribution costs head on. Launching a series of reforms, he is aiming at cutting the cost of booking and payment systems - a budget item that racks up $2.5 billion annually in expenses. Much of these savings will be realized from its UAL.

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