Colleen Barrett

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President and chief operating officer, Southwest Airlines Company

Nationality: American.

Born: 1944, in Bellows Falls, Vermont.

Education: Becker Junior College, 1964.

Family: Married, 1970 (divorced).

Career: Mathews & Branscomb law firm, 1968–1970, secretary; Southwest Airlines Company, 1978–2001, began as corporate secretary and became vice president of administration and then executive vice president of customers; 2001–, president and chief operating officer.

Awards: Compass Award, Woman's Leadership Exchange, 2002; Kupfer Distinguished Executive Award, 2002.

Address: Southwest Airlines, 2702 Love Field Drive, P.O. Box 36611, Dallas, Texas 75235-1611;

■ Colleen Barrett joined Southwest Airlines Company in 1978 as a corporate secretary and rose through the ranks to become the company's president and chief operating officer. Barrett's development of Southwest's innovative customerfocused culture made her a driving force in the airline's growth into one of the largest and most profitable major airlines. Barrett is highly regarded by industry analysts for her ability to meet the needs of employees, customers, and shareholders.


As a girl, Barrett was fascinated with the law and worked as a legal secretary for an uncle. She could not afford to attend law school, however, so she went to a junior college in her home state of Vermont. In 1968 the 23-year-old college graduate was hired by the law firm of Mathews & Branscomb in San Antonio, Texas. She ended up working with Herb Kelleher, marking the beginning of a long-term business relationship that was to change her life. Looking back on those early

Colleen Barrett. AP/Wide World Photos.
Colleen Barrett.
AP/Wide World Photos

days, Barrett recalled that Kelleher took her everywhere, from court rooms to the state's legislative halls in Austin, Texas. She thought that all legal secretaries engaged in this sort of work. In an interview with Margaret Allen of the Houston Business Journal , Barrett recalled, "I wasn't smart enough to know I was being given some golden opportunities that most people don't get in a lifetime" (August 24, 2001).

Barrett soon became indispensable to the eccentric Kelleher. When he and the San Antonio businessman Rollin King decided to create Southwest Airlines, Barrett became an integral part of Kelleher's efforts to gain legal approval for the fledgling airline. The two ended up spending many sixteen-hour days together in the effort to get the airline off the ground. Barrett maintained ties with Kelleher but did not officially join the airline staff until 1978, when she became corporate secretary. Barrett's intuitive business sense helped her move up the corporate ladder to become vice president of administration and then vice president of customers. Nevertheless, she remained Kelleher's personal spokesperson and confidante and continued to oversee his scheduling. In fact, the two became so inseparable at Southwest that they were known simply as "Herb and Colleen."


Although sometimes described as shy and introverted, Barrett is credited with the Southwest corporate culture that stresses customer satisfaction and employee participation. In an interview with Sharon Shinn for BizEd , Barrett noted, "We tell job applicants we're in the customer service business. We just happen to provide airline transportation" (March/April 2003). Barrett's success in guiding the company along this path was evident when she worked as vice president in the customer relations department. Under her guidance, Southwest typically beat all the other airlines year in and year out in the airline industry's "Triple Crown" of performance ratings. The airline routinely scored highest in on-time record, lowest in lost luggage, and lowest in customer complaints.

As a longtime leader of the company's hiring program, Barrett focused on hiring employees who wanted more than just a job. She told Erika Rasmusson in an interview for Sales & Marketing Management , "We start from day one, trying to make people understand that we are looking for people who want to join a cause, not get a paycheck" (December 2001). To achieve her goals with employees, Barrett strengthened the company's efforts at mentoring and coaching to include imparting knowledge about the airline's history and an understanding of what type of company the employees had joined. Southwest's reputation as a good company to work for became so well known that in 2000 Southwest received 216,000 résumés for a little more than five thousand positions. Southwest consistently has had one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the industry.


Barrett was rewarded for her continuing commitment to Southwest with her appointment to the post of president and COO in 2001, after Kelleher retired. Her promotion took place only three months before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The attacks, which used commercial airlines, had a tremendous negative impact on most airlines and resulted in a big decline in ticket sales. Although Southwest experienced passenger loads well below normal, Barrett and the company slowly built up passenger confidence, partly through an advertising campaign that began on September 19—just eight days after the attacks. The ads focused on Southwest employees' uniting to get Americans to fly again. Less than a week later Barrett and Southwest launched an airfare sale that offered travelers another incentive to resume flying. Barrett also gave refunds to passengers who wanted to cancel their flights and took a pay cut to help the airline through the crisis.

Barrett noted in Sales & Marketing Management , "We have tried to be a constant in what has otherwise been an uncertain environment" (December 2001). Part of that constancy was that Southwest maintained all of its 2,700 daily flights and retained its 32,000 employees. Barrett's efforts produced results, and the airline went on to have profitable years in both 2001 and 2002. In fact, through 2003 Southwest was the only major carrier to remain consistently profitable since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Its fourth-quarter profit in 2003 was $66 million, or eight cents per share, which marked an increase from the $42 million, or five cents per share, of a year earlier.


If anything typified Barrett's approach to management and business, it was hard work—she usually worked 16-hour days. Nevertheless, industry analysts described her as having a laidback management style. Although she stressed customer satisfaction, her fundamental philosophy put employees first and customers second. Barrett always believed that making employees happy resulted in better service for the customers, who would then want to fly Southwest. Barrett also emphasized honesty and direct communication with employees. She has garnered complete loyalty from Southwest employees by fostering ownership of the company as a family. For example, in addition to traditional approaches, such as sending out cards on employees' birthdays or anniversary dates of hire, the company sends notes of sympathy and condolence to employees when their family members are sick or die.

Barrett is also known for her ability to respond to difficulties and crisis, as in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, a trait she credits to her mentor, Kelleher. Noting that opportunities usually come only once, she told Shinn in BizEd , "If you don't take them, someone else will" (March/April 2003).


Barrett's success made her the top-ranked woman executive in the airline industry. In January 2004 J. C. Penney Company's board of directors elected her a director of the company. Throughout her career, Barrett was known for her honesty and dedication. During a ceremony at Texas A&M, when Barrett received the 2002 Kupfer Distinguished Executive Award, Kelleher was quoted on Mays Business Online as saying, "She is the antidote to the questions about integrity in American business" (May 2002).

See also entry on Southwest Airlines Co. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Allen, Margaret, "Southwest Airlines Head Takes Flight with Ground Control," Houston Business Journal , August 24, 2001, p. 2.

Clark, Kim, "Nothing But the Plane Truth," U.S. News & World Report , December 31, 2001, p. 58.

Engeler, Amy, "A Busy Boss Can Never Fly Solo," Business Month , August 1990, p. 22.

Rasmusson, Erika, "Flying High: How Southwest Airlines Is Inspiring Loyalty in Trying Times," Sales & Marketing Management , December 2001, p. 55.

Shinn, Sharon, "LUV Colleen," BizEd , March/April 2003, pp. 18–23.

White, Judith Macintosh, "Colleen Barret: Redefining the Rules," Mays Business Online , .

—David Petechuk

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