From Worst to First | Gordon Bethune

Summary of: From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback
By: Gordon Bethune


Embark on a journey through Continental Airlines’ extraordinary transformation from an underperforming business on the brink of failure to a thriving industry leader. In ‘From Worst to First,’ author Gordon Bethune shares the methodology and strategy that helped turn Continental around. This summary delves into the four-part ‘Go Forward’ plan – covering marketing, finance, product, and people – implementing drastic changes to save the once-failing airline. Learn how Bethune revamped the company culture, built trust with employees, forged better relationships with customers, and made critical financial decisions that paved the way for Continental’s remarkable comeback.

Turnaround Mastermind

Gordon Bethune’s exceptional leadership skills and strategic decisions brought Continental Airlines, struggling to maintain operations, back to profitability.

Gordon Bethune, a former executive at Boeing, was appointed as the president and chief operating officer of Continental Airlines in 1994 when the company was critically ailing. The airline was placed last among the top 10 U.S. airlines due to below-average on-time percentages, grievances related to mishandled baggage cases, and a high number of customer complaints, three times above the industry average. Continental had been through ten executives and had filed for bankruptcy twice in the last decade, with employees receiving salaries below industry standards.

Bethune’s leadership transformed the airline around. He initiated performance improvement strategies, created incentive pays, controlled spiraling costs, and focused on boosting earnings. He also emphasized higher-fare business customers’ satisfaction, which led to a significant increase in customer loyalty and revenue. Bethune’s success was evident when the company witnessed its first profitable year in 1995, and its stock price soared, leading to his promotion to CEO.

Bethune’s approach depicts the core principle that significant change requires strong leadership and a highly visible point person. His exceptional management and strategic decisions breathed new life into a struggling airline.

Bethune’s Go-Forward Plan.

Bethune removes the “us-versus-them” culture by opening company doors to employees. After several hurdles, he convinces the board of his worth, and develops his four-part “Go Forward” plan – marketing, finance, product, and people.

Continental’s Winning Strategy

Continental Airlines’ adopted a winning strategy that prioritized profit-making and mended past grievances with travel agents. The plan included cutting unprofitable routes and offering fair commissions to agents to encourage active booking. This focus on winning and achievement contributed to the airline’s significant success.

Bethune’s Financial Reforms

Bethune restructured the financial system of an airline to avoid bankruptcy. He negotiated leases, refinanced debts, and improved the pricing structure. By monitoring the daily financial situation, he made informed decisions about the company’s operations.

Bethune’s Plan for Continental Airlines

Learn how Bethune aimed to boost passengers’ satisfaction with on-time arrivals, prompt baggage service, and employee support for Continental Airlines.

In his bid to improve Continental Airlines’ overall service, CEO Gordon Bethune hatched a plan to focus on basic amenities that mattered to customers. These included being on time, handling baggage promptly, and having employees who went above and beyond to help passengers. Bethune monitored the airline’s on-time percentage as a measure of reliability. By putting customers’ needs first, he aimed to enhance passenger satisfaction and loyalty.

Treat People Better

Bethune’s plan aimed to foster cooperation and trust within an organization by incentivizing positive behavior. By measuring and rewarding cohesiveness, he sought to overcome infighting among individuals and departments. The approach prioritizes the idea that treating people well enhances productivity and morale.

Continental Airlines Turnaround

Continental Airlines underwent a major transformation by focusing on profitable routes and improving relationships with travel agents. The plan aimed to prioritize winning and achievement, which involved dropping unprofitable routes and apologizing to travel agents for past bad treatment. As a result, Continental reestablished fair commissions for travel agents to actively book with them again. Through these changes, Continental was able to undergo a successful turnaround and become a profitable airline once more.

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