Flynn's Harp: Early lessons helped shape Ayer's style in guiding Alaska's through turbulent times
If a company deserves to be judged by the leader it keeps and leaders by the companies they build, then Alaska Air Group and its chairman and CEO Bill Ayer should be judged well. Ayer, 57, who steered the company for the past decade through an increasingly successful flight while for the rest of the "legacy" airlines the 10 years proved an image-scaring and scary ride, has announced that he is officially turning over the CEO reins to Alaska president Brad Tilden.
Ayer, who has spent more than 30 years in the industry since launching his own little start-up airline in his mid-20s, offered some reflections this week on his career from entrepreneur through leadership of the nation's seventh largest airline. And those reflections by its leader, shared in an e-mail exchange of questions and answers, indicate why Alaska has remained a favorite of investors, its customers and its communities.
Two of Ayer's convictions are that you learn from, rather than make fun of, your competitors and that a small-company feel makes it easier for employees to work together and be open to change, no matter how big the company.
The former is perhaps best exemplified by an email exchange we had several years ago after Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary suggested his lowest-cost Irish airline (frequently also referred to as the cheapest airline) might consider charging for use of airborne restrooms.
I suggested to Ayer that it might be time to revive the amusing television ads from years ago that showed the travails of a passenger who needs a 25-cent fee for entry to his plane's restroom and proceeds to try to obtain the quarter for an increasingly high price from passengers on the plane.
"You never want to make fun of competitors' actions because you never know what steps you might be required to take yourself," he e-mailed back.
I asked him this week about that exchange and his reluctance to criticize competitors.
"Sometimes what seems like a lousy idea from a competitor turns out to be pretty
Smart," he replied. "If we have a 'we're better than you' attitude, we won't take the time to evaluate it.
"Our focus has been on controlling what we can control and not simply hoping that something bad happens to a competitor to improve our situation," Ayer added. "We were surprised at how controllable our business was once we started to really focus on what we could do differently."
The fact that Ayer was an entrepreneur, then executive of a fast-growing start-up airline before joining Alaska in 1995 as vice president of marketing and planning has undoubtedly guided his belief in the need to retain a small-company feel.
He was in his mid-20s, a regional manager for Piper Aircraft Co., when he launched Air Olympia, a small commuter serving several Washington cities that operated for two years.
He jokes that "we didn't go broke, but probably would have if we had stuck with it."
Instead, he was lured to close up his little carrier and join the late Milt Kuolt and his team at the fledgling Horizon in 1982, the relationship that eventually led to Ayer's role atop the parent company of both airlines. Alaska acquired Horizon in 1987, along with Ayer.
Bruce McCaw, a Kuolt confidante and one of his key advisors, recalls that "Milt was quite impressed with Ayer, even though he was very young at the time. He knew Bill was smart and had a lot of good ideas."
"I liked Bill from the moment we met and we worked well together," McCaw recalled.
Ayer remembers Air Olympia as "a great place to start, although it felt like a leap into the
deep end of the pool. That experience convinced me that I had a passion for
this business which I should pursue."
He recalls the days with Horizon as "difficult. We were always worried about having enough cash to make payroll. But (it) shaped our conservative approach."
The shaping of that financially conservative approach undoubtedly helped guide Ayer's decisions as he steered Alaska basically unscathed through a decade of airline-industry turbulence that saw all of its legacy competitors go through bankruptcy.
So now Ayer turns the reins over to Tilden, expressing the conviction that "a CEO can overstay his or her welcome" and "there should be different leaders for different times."
He and the Alaska board, which Ayer says he's had involved over the past couple of years in the planning of the transition to Tilden, view him as "exactly the right leader to take us to the next level." The skills that Ayer and others see in Tilden may indicate that a company is also judged by the leadership-successor it picks.
Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn’s Harp. Contact him at Mike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email, or to see previous Flynn’s Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com and click on blogs.