Ben Minicucci Bio

Ben Minicucci serves as chief executive officer and president of Alaska Air Group, the parent company of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. Together, the airlines carry more than 41 million guests a year on 1,200 daily flights to 120+ destinations throughout the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize.

Under the leadership of Ben and his team, Alaska is focused on running a safe and strong operation, profitable growth of the route network, and creating an airline people love.

During Ben’s 19-year career with Alaska, he has contributed in various roles of increasing responsibility, becoming CEO on March 31, 2021.

 

Ben holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada. He serves on the board of directors for Alaska Air Group, UNCF, World Trade Center Seattle, Washington Roundtable, Challenge Seattle, and the University of Washington Michael G. Foster School of Business Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking.

November 20, 2023

Piloting Alaska Airlines with Compassion

To pilot Alaska Airlines, CEO Ben Minicucci draws on his Italian immigrant roots and Canadian military training, which was put to the test during a tricky operation near the North Pole. rom Having first gained a reputation at the company as “the numbers guy,” Minicucci discusses how he has been evolving into a leader who cares deeply about Alaska Airline’s employees, customers, and the communities it serves.

Transcript

Airport Announcer:

Welcome to Los Angeles International Airport. For your safety, please keep your personal belongings with you at all times.

Ranjay Gulati:

Few business sectors have endured harsher headwinds in recent years than the airline industry. Beginning in 2020, the COVID pandemic virtually wiped out air travel. Airports stood empty. Flight crews and ground personnel were furloughed or laid off. Airplanes got mothballed. But now people are flying again and airlines are still scrambling to get back to full speed. COVID aside, it’s never been easy to run an airline. The industry is complex and competitive with huge operating costs and relatively tight profit margins, so it takes tremendous courage to pilot an airline.

Hi everyone. Welcome to Deep Purpose, a podcast about courage and commitment in turbulent times. I’m Ranjay Gulati, a Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. My guest this time is Ben Minicucci, the Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Airlines, the fifth-largest domestic airline in terms of market share. Minicucci is the son of Italian parents who immigrated to Canada after World War II. He earned a master’s degree in engineering from Canada’s Royal Military College and served on a transportation squadron. Ben first signed on with Alaska Airlines as a Staff Vice President of Maintenance. 17 years later, he rose to become CEO in 2021. I asked Ben Minicucci to tell me about the life and work experiences that shaped him as a leader. Where did he get the courage to take the controls of Alaska Airlines? Ben says it came in large part from his immigrant family.

Ben Minicucci:

My father never went to school. My father was illiterate and my mom only went to fifth grade in Italy, and I think that has a lot to do with my upbringing. So they immigrated in the fifties and it was after the war, they were poor. My dad had one uncle here and says, “Hey, if you want to work, there’s work here.” And they came, they landed in Montreal. My dad, all he knew was hard work all his life. My mom just knew a little bit. She went to fifth grade. My dad… I had two brothers and a sister, and he would say [to us], “You got to go to school or you’re going to be like me working like a donkey in the elements, working with your back and your hands all your life.” He was always like, “I want you to go to school.”

He goes, “I want you to go work in a suit when you get to work and not like me getting up early and working in the elements.” But for me, that was a very big part of my life, seeing how hard my parents worked to put their kids through school and get them all educated. For me, I was driven by that to say, “You know what? I’m going to be the best I can be and the best I can be for my dad.” I remember my dad when I got my master’s degree in engineering, he didn’t know how to say it but he goes, “My son is a master engineer.” He called it master engineer. For him it was like, I’m illiterate, and I raised a son to be a master of engineering, and it was one of the things I’ll always remember because he was so proud.

Ranjay Gulati:

That’s an amazing starting moment in your journey. Let’s move forward. You join the military and then you are a maintenance engineer in the military, in the armed forces of Canada. Then you move out of the armed forces into civilian life and work your way into leadership roles to the point where you become, one day, Chief Operating Officer and then CEO of Alaska Airlines. Are there pivotal moments in that journey that shaped you even as a person?

Ben Minicucci:

I remember one in particular when I was doing my master’s degree in engineering. Believe it or not, it was in robotics. I had this brilliant thesis professor, and I actually hated it, I hated my thesis. It was extremely difficult. Robotics is extremely complex engineering and mathematics. But I was studying control systems, how to control a robotic arm, and it’s like controlling the cruise control in your car or the heating in your house. Right when I was doing it… Because when I came out of the field in the military, I was leading big groups of people. I was leading squadrons of maintenance people and that’s what I loved. I loved having big problems and here I am doing my master’s degree because they said that would be good for me and I’m hating it. I’m in this all by myself and trying to figure this stuff out.

Then it hit me when I was doing control systems engineering, I said, “I can apply this to organizations,” because it’s a feedback control loop. So you have inputs and outputs and you have to have a controller feedback that takes it and continually drives it through a process to get the output you want. So if you’re driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, put your cruise control. If you hit a hill, your feedback says, “Hey, I need more gas. I want to keep it at 60 instead of just dropping down.” I said, “I can apply the same principles leading an organization.” It was in that pivotal moment that everything clicked for me to say, I can change outcomes. I can change outputs of an organization by applying this theory, that people don’t have to know it’s control system theory, but I’m actually doing it in my head and applying the input and output theory.

Ranjay Gulati:

Now, one of the places you had to apply this was you got the job to be the station manager for Seattle, which was the worst performing hub for Alaska Airlines. Did you apply a similar kind of control theory to-

Ben Minicucci:

That’s exactly.

Ranjay Gulati:

… out of that?

Ben Minicucci:

It was exactly that. So Seattle, I was probably two and a half years or three years into my Alaska career. We were suffering badly from operational performance with Seattle as the worst station. We were at an offsite and our CEO was just furious and said, “We need to fix it.” They said, “We need a leader, and we need someone to go fix it.” I raised my hand, I said, “I’ll go fix it,” because even though I was there, I was watching it, the stuff was rolling in my head and I said… Even when I would drive the ramp, I was working maintenance and I would say, “That doesn’t work. That doesn’t work. That doesn’t work. We need a process for that, a process for that.” In my head, I was thinking about these things and when they gave it to me, they said, “Okay, give us a proposal.”

On the weekend I gave them a proposal how I fix Seattle. On Monday I had the job and in six months, a massive improvement. In 12 months, we had gone from worst to first as an airline in the country and then for the next, got to be ten years, we were leading the industry in operational performance. Because of that role, my CEO back then gave me the role of Chief Operating Officer, but it was all applying that theory, but in a way that people understood it.

Ranjay Gulati:

People are funny creatures. We love stories about heroic agitators who take on the status quo and shake things up. We admire people who kick over the apple cart, who challenge stuffy old conventions, but we’re a lot less excited when it’s our apple cart or our conventions. Ben Minicucci says his new operational system in Alaska’s Seattle hub sparked a lot of initial resistance from employees.

Ben Minicucci:

I had tremendous pushback if I didn’t have the support of my CEO… Because it was so massively different than what we were doing. It was very process orientated. It was timelines and people had to do certain things at certain times. I measured everything. I gave people scorecards. I had metrics for everything. I remember the first three months I gave people F’s. “You get an F. You get an F. You get an F, you’re not following the process.” Timeline’s red, scorecard’s red. People were super upset because I completely undid how they were doing the operation, but I was so focused and I had the support. I said, “It can’t be worse than where we are. I know this thing works. It’s going to work.” Then people slowly started coming around, and they knew I had the support of the CEO back then, and then change started happening so fast. It was something like we caught fire. It was like, oh my God, okay, people finally started to get… Now there was a lot of accountability.

I built expectations, measurement, accountability, and I raised the bar so high on people, and they didn’t want to fail. It was just every day I was on it, on it, on it, on it until the habit formed into a behavior and we had to go from creating a habit until it became part of our behavior and part of our culture.

Ranjay Gulati:

So what is the general learning from that? As human beings we need to have clearly defined processes with clearly defined metrics and clearly defined rewards, is that the takeaway? That people, human beings, left to their own devices are not going to land at the most efficient place? Sometimes you have to provide that to them and then measure and reward them around that.

Ben Minicucci:

When there’s change that needs to happen, you have to push people into an uncomfortable spot that they’ve never been in and to do things that… It’s like writing with your left hand. They don’t want to do it, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. I want to go back to doing it like I used to do it. It’s to have the perseverance to push through that resistance, map it off for them and establish like, “Look, there’s a reward at the end of this if we get it.” But I just remember how hard it was for me because I had to have the tenacity and I had to be so resolute in my mission to say, “No, I am going to turn around this station, come hell or high water. You’re with me or you’re not, and tell me if you’re not because I’ll go to someone else.” I had the backing of the CEO.

When it turned, suddenly people understood it, and it went, and then people came on board. The system is being used today. So the system’s been in place now for 15 years. It was an incredible thing for me. One of the things I’ll never ever forget.

Ranjay Gulati:

In 2009, Alaska Airlines promoted Ben Minicucci to Chief Operating Officer. At the time, Alaska urgently needed to up its game. In 2013, industry Titan Delta Air Lines launched a massive incursion into the Seattle market, Alaska’s home turf. In response, Alaska acquired Virgin America, combining to become the fifth-largest airline in the United States. To improve Alaska’s customer service and sharpen its competitive edge, Minicucci and his team developed a new service framework for Alaska’s frontline operations. Instead of keeping employees tied to strict company policies, Alaska empowered frontline workers to make decisions that would create what the airline called “exceptional personal connections and incredible journeys for customers.” It was a big evolution for Alaska Airlines and for Ben Minicucci.

So Ben, you said you were a very regimented process guy, everything could be turned into a process with metrics and rewards. But once you were COO, after a few years, you suddenly came to realize the limits of this kind of thinking, that maybe there are downsides to it or you can take it too far. What was that transition for you like? What changed in you? What did you see? How did you have to modify your own thinking on this?

Ben Minicucci:

What I didn’t like is the unintended consequence of fear. We were so good and so regimented. Nobody wanted to be red on their scorecard. Nobody wanted to have a D or a C. Everyone wanted to be A, B and green on their timeline. I created fear and so it’s like, Ben’s not going to like that, right? Your reputation grew larger than life with employees that, hey, Ben’s on this stuff and if you don’t perform it’s not going to be good. You realize that that was not the place I wanted everyone to be and that I love working with people. I love winning together with teams. I said, “We’re losing something here.” It was just the light went on. I said, “It’s gone too far and I have to bring it back a little bit to realize that I want people to use common sense inside a framework of how we operate.”

I wanted people to make sure that they are their own individuals and [that] they can use their own judgment in tough situations to say, I’m going to miss that timeline element because I’m trying to deal with this particular customer case that I’m going to take care of. I also wanted them to see that it’s not just all about the numbers. There’s a people side. We’re a company about people. We care about each other. We care about customers. So for me, people still see me as the process, metric-focused guy who only caress about numbers. I am literally known as the numbers guy by a lot of people in the operation who know me. “He’s the numbers guy.” Even to this day, I’m like, that hurts a little bit more than just numbers because I care about people so much and that didn’t come through all of that. So even today, I’m working on the part where I care about people and because of what I had to do in 2008 and ’09 to turn on the operation, that legacy of “he’s a numbers guy” still lives with me all this time.

Ranjay Gulati:

So, did something change in you or did you have an experience or a moment that suddenly made you realize maybe I’m too much of a numbers guy and I need to backpedal this? Did somebody give you feedback or were there a moment that made you realize that maybe I’ve tipped too far in one direction?

Ben Minicucci:

The one thing about running a unionized workforce is they give you really open feedback. They’ll say things like, “You don’t care about us,” and “You only care about the bottom line. You only care about numbers.” I did get that feedback from frontline employees and-

Ranjay Gulati:

Anyone that you remember?

Ben Minicucci:

Oh, it was flight attendants, pilots, mechanics, customer service agents. When I heard it, it hurt because it wasn’t true. But I understand from their perspective, all they saw was the leader saying, “This is the bar for performance and I expect it,” and they can never see the side in other venues where I would advocate for them or I want to take care of them and do everything I can to make it a good company for them. So that’s when you realize as you get to the levels I’m at now, that you have to be really deliberate and thoughtful on how you communicate and that those things are important, but culture and how you care about people has to come through. Honestly, it’s the thing I’m still working today because I know that it’s the reputation I have and reputations are tough to undo.

The new people that get to know me, they say… They didn’t know the old Ben. They’re like, “Gosh, really, he was like that? Because every time I talk with him, he’s nothing like it.” “Oh, you didn’t know the old Ben. The old Ben was like this.” Right? People who know me close said, “You have changed. You have moved.” They say, “You can move your leadership style if you are self-aware enough and put in the work,” because they’ve seen me do it. Actually one of the big differences, they said, “I saw a big difference after you came back from AMP.”

Ranjay Gulati:

In 2021, Ben Minicucci was named CEO of Alaska Air Group, the parent company of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. Altogether, they fly more than 45 million people a year to destinations across the United States and Canada, as well as Mexico and Costa Rica.

So Ben, what have you learned about communicating? You call it caring leadership. How do you communicate caring while also holding people accountable? Because caring can be perceived as weakness, softness, tolerance of mediocrity. How do you carry those two ideas at the same time and communicate those effectively?

Ben Minicucci:

The biggest thing I’ve learned on that… when the numbers aren’t there, I never try and criticize the person. I try and criticize the numbers or the output to say if revenue is not there or if on time performance is not there or if engagement numbers are not there, I’m hard on the numbers. Then with the person I say… It’s not being hard on the person, it’s being hard on the numbers which they could be responsible for and saying, “This is not good enough.” Having candor around the performance and not so much being critical like, you’re not doing this and you’re not doing that… We can talk about things that they could do better. But that’s one of the things I am really, really aware of is not to attack the person, but to focus on the numbers which have helped me.

In terms of communicating caring, you know what, I am really aware of how I start conversations. I always thank people, acknowledge the successes, and then balance it with things that need to get better. Never to forget, never just to go in and say, “Let’s focus on things that aren’t going well.” To say, “Look, we’ve had some successes here and I want to talk about some of those that have been going really, really well.” Things I wouldn’t do in the past. I would normally go as an engineer, I’m like, “Good, good, good, good. Yes, yes, yes. Bad, I want to talk about this and I want to talk about this now.” Because people need to feel like, hey, I’ve done all this work, so not all of it’s bad. I’ve learned more to do some of that.

Ranjay Gulati:

Ben, you’re CEO now for a couple of years. We all talk about CEO, lonely job. It’s really hard job. You’ve got to navigate, make trade-offs and choices. You’ve got to appease a lot of stakeholders at the same time. It’s gotten tougher. The turnover of CEOs has gone up like crazy. What have been some of the hardest things you’ve had to learn to do now that you are CEO, not just COO?

Ben Minicucci:

The hardest things like in COVID, it was really, really difficult because just as the country was divided on so many issues about COVID, whether it was vaccines, mandating vaccines, not mandating vaccines. Whatever the social issues was, we were having the same microcosm in Alaska. One of the things was how do you navigate these very tricky decisions? Do you mandate vaccines or not? At a certain point, some companies were doing it, other companies weren’t. What was going to be Alaska’s policy? As much as I got my leaders in the room, they were divided. My leaders were all in. Some said we should. Some said we shouldn’t. At the end, I realized on these critical decisions, whether it’s on vaccines or any social issues that are out there, whether it was the times where we had Black Lives Matter issues, I realized that my voice at the end was going to count on these critical issues that were out there and people wanted to hear from me.

So I had to learn to say, okay, I’m going to take all this input from folks, separate almost a little bit what I thought and get as much information and then bring everything together and make a decision that I thought would be best for the company, our people, customers, because customers were equally impacted. The best thing for the company, it’s the hardest thing right now because it’s one of the things I worry about the most is with everything that’s going on around the world is companies now are stepping up and having a bigger voice on social issues in the country. One of the things is when do you bring your voice in on something that’s impactful and when to do it and how to do it?

Ranjay Gulati:

So who have been some leaders who really inspired you in this journey, whether you worked for them or met them or read about them who have really been inspiring to you through this kind of arc that you’ve been on?

Ben Minicucci:

One, I just say like my dad, I just think of my dad. Like I said, my dad never went to school, not educated. My dad was simple, right? He knew how to work hard. He knew he had to make money to pay for everything and look after his kids, but he was focused. He was focused on getting that job done. What I learned from my dad is, and maybe that’s where I get it from, this driving force to get something done, very goal oriented and to not give up. My dad never gave up again. You couldn’t have dealt a worst hand than he did and still be as successful. So that’s one when I think-

Ranjay Gulati:

Any particular moments that come to mind, a particular day or a conversation or observed him doing something that stands out in your memory?

Ben Minicucci:

Well, one, I always remember as a little kid how early he got up to go to work because he would smoke. So he would go to the bathroom, his bathroom was beside our bedroom. We all slept in the same room. I would smell the Players coming through at like 4:30 in the morning into my bedroom, every morning without question. That’s what I smelled every morning. It was almost comforting, right? I would smell the smoke, probably not good for me or us, but I would smell that. To me it was that every morning you’d get up and that’s what you… It was a discipline that always amazed me, and he did it for decades.

Another moment when I saw he tried to start a business with a family relative and it failed. I saw the stress and toll he took, and he had to go back to his old employer, ask for his job back so that he can take care of his family. I saw how hard that was on him because it was a very prideful moment in his life that one thing didn’t succeed and he had to go back. But he did it because he needed to take care of his family. So to me, those were impactful things for me, things you have to do to sacrifice.

Then I had a great leader at Air Canada who passed away actually only this past year, who was one of the most amazing leaders I worked for. What he taught me was just the ability to… He was all about listening to people and he was so calm. I would always admire how we would stay calm, listen, ask for other opinions. I always try to emulate. Today I try and think about that, to say in your position today, listen first, don’t talk. So as a CEO right now, I don’t talk. I’m not the first one to talk when I get into a room because I know if I talk and say, “Hey, I got a great idea,” everyone’s going to stop. So I think back to Oliver and he would never talk first. He let every other person talk and make sure they were able to express themselves before I spoke. I think that’s another huge lesson I learned from him.

Ranjay Gulati:

Let’s switch to the topic of courage. Courage is a subject we don’t talk often about in leadership. We talk about it in the military. Courage is often described as taking action in the face of fear. So could you maybe tell us about in your life trajectory, were there any moments where you actually experienced fear but you still had to do something?

Ben Minicucci:

I have a couple military examples I’ll start with, but-

Ranjay Gulati:

Even COVID would be another one.

Ben Minicucci:

COVID is another one, yeah. Well, let me do one military one. Well, when I was in the military, because I was in the field, I was classified as having C-130 experience. We had a C-130 [plane] go down, crashed up near the North Pole. I remember getting a call at night and saying, “Hey, C-130, this tail number went down and the airplane is probably in pieces somewhere in the North Pole,” literally near the North Pole. “You’re the lead technical investigator and you’re leaving on a challenger in the morning. Some technicians out of Edmonton will meet you.” Getting that call petrified me because I had no idea what to do. I was never so scared in my whole life because I was meeting with a crew that I hadn’t worked with.

I had to come up with how we were going to do this, and I was just absolutely petrified. But there’s nothing like fear to have you really focus on getting it done and we got it done. But it was probably one of the most fearful experiences that I had gone through. Just thinking about it, getting there, seeing it, doing it and getting it done was-

Ranjay Gulati:

So what kept you going? Was it the fact that it was a job you had to do, you could not do it, and bosses told you? Did you do it because you were told or do you think there was comfort in numbers, that the people you were with seemed to have confidence and they gave you? Or was there some standard operating procedures, you said, listen, got to go back to my training, this is what I trained to do? How did you-

Ben Minicucci:

I think it was a little bit of all of that, but it was also a little bit how I was raised. You get shit done and no matter how scared you are… Again, it could be my father coming to a foreign country without a language that, hey, you got to provide. These are the cards you’re dealt and you’re going to have to make it work. You figure out a way to make it work. What kicks into me, even when in the face of something I don’t know, is you’re going to have to figure out a way to make it work. So with COVID, it was kind of the same thing. Again talking about fear, the first employee webcast, 12,000 people were on or something close to that and getting on and-

Ranjay Gulati:

Just tell them what happened in COVID, your sales overnight-

Ben Minicucci:

90% of our revenues got wiped away.

Ranjay Gulati:

You’re burning how much money?

Ben Minicucci:

$15 million a day, $400 million a month. It was just excessive cash burn, and we’re running out of cash. We hadn’t got the federal aid yet, and it was just crisis. You’re talking to employees, and I just remember feeling this overwhelming… Just sick to my stomach because I knew I had to show strength and courage to give them optimism. Tell them the truth about how bad things were, but also inspire them that things will get better. I had to get myself in there to say, look, and I’m staring at a camera because of course it’s COVID and people are watching and I was hoping the camera couldn’t catch just my anxiety and my nervousness. But that was probably one of the places that I remember being really fearful. But I knew that people were depending on me, that I needed to show strength, courage, resolve.

I knew I had to tell them how bad it was, but that we were going to get through it and that I was going to make sure we got through it and we were going to work tirelessly every day to make sure that we’d look after them and that this company was going to make it to the other side.

Ranjay Gulati:

So what gave you that courage? What did you have to say to yourself? In that moment, you are feeling petrified. You don’t really have a playbook. There’s no playbook really on what you’re going to do. You don’t know if you’re going to get federal aid. You got four months of cash. You are hustling to come up with a plan, but really there’s no playbook here. You’re going to make one up. Now, what gave you the kind of the moral or physical sense that this too shall pass, I got to get us through this and I got to show confidence and resolve to these people while I’m not feeling it myself, right, so I got to fake it a bit also? What did you say to yourself?

Ben Minicucci:

It’s probably my history, my training. I’ve been in leadership roles since I joined the academy at 17 years old, right? You’re always put in stressful situations and we got put in leadership roles at an early age. I know that in a role as a leader, your job is to take care of your people in crisis. Whether it’s a military environment or whether it’s a business environment, your job ultimately in crisis is to look after your people and the company. I knew that was my number one job is I got to look after my people, my employees, the company, and that they’re looking at to me for direction, confidence, the truth. That’s what I told them. I said, they’re looking at you, how you come across, how you communicate, how you talk about the present and how we’re going forward is going to make all the difference.

So I told myself, I said, remember, you’re talking… Because over 20,000 people are going to watch this, so you need to be at your best. So that’s what I’ve told myself is you need to use everything I learned in the past from whatever I have to draw from, but I needed to be at my best for my people and for my company.

Ranjay Gulati:

Any courage heroes come to mind? Any kind of people you’ve encountered who really, you’ve seen others exhibit courage really in the face of dire circumstances?

Ben Minicucci:

I’m sure there are. Now you’re catching me flatfooted here. I’d have to think a little bit.

Ranjay Gulati:

Even ones you’ve read about that inspire, you say that one, even if I read about it, the thought of how this person did what they did.

Ben Minicucci:

I’m reading a book right now on Patagonia about how they started the company. What I’m really impressed with is their leader and having, again, the courage to their mission and their purpose and not waver from it. I read it as inspiration for me because they’re less driven by profit and they’re driven by doing good, producing great products, and being great to the climate, great to the environment and to do it sustainably. They’re so committed to that purpose. I use it as a source of inspiration in the role I’m in now is, is there something that would actually take me off what I believe is true, take me off the path? Could I stay really true on these tracks that I believe in today? Is there anything that can knock me off? I read that story and nothing can knock him off of that, no matter how bad things got. So for that, I respect that courage to the mission and the purpose.

Ranjay Gulati:

On that note, can you speak to commitment? What is the mission and purpose of Alaska Airlines, and how do you plan to stay to that purpose?

Ben Minicucci:

Well, we have an incredible history of growth and performance, but what I realize is our company is rooted in a culture of care and rooted in our values. And that this culture of care is, it’s a place of differentiation in our industry, and it’s something that is perishable, that if I don’t focus on it as a leader… Because it can easily go away as you hire thousands of people over the years. So for me, my mission really is to ensure that this culture of care, grounded in our values, stays true during my time and will be an enabler to continue financial and operational success, but also an enabler to growth because our brand can carve a niche in this industry. So that’s what I hope for.

Ranjay Gulati:

If I was to pull your subordinates and I ask them, “Give me a word to describe Ben,” what do you think is the word you would hope they would use to describe you? Pick two or three. What words do you hope they would say, “That’s Ben”? You described yourself as “the numbers guy” earlier. What are the words you hope they would be saying instead of “the numbers guy”?

Ben Minicucci:

I’m going to go back. A couple of things. One, I hope they would say “a very balanced leader.” “A very caring leader,” I hope is what they would say, because at the end of the day, what I hope to do is take care of everyone who depends on Alaska, our people, our customers, the communities, our owners. I want to do all those things well, but it is not just about the numbers anymore and I want people to say, “You know what? He has changed over the years. This is a different leader than when he was in the military, than when he just started the business, and he’s evolved his leadership style over the years, where now he’s created something that’s sustainable, that’s balanced, and he truly cares about people, about the company in so many different ways.” That’s what I hope they say.

Ranjay Gulati:

So when you came into this job, you had transformed the Seattle base, you become COO. In the time that you’ve been at Alaska, it’s been phenomenally successful on all financial metrics, right? You’re driving profit. You’re driving top line growth. You’ve taken cost down, becoming one of the most efficient airlines in the airline industry. J.D. Power’s customer sat score number one. I mean, it’s an extraordinary story in terms of financial performance and success, and you’ve brought them through COVID successfully. One day, when you leave this job, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want people to remember you by that, yes, Ben was CEO once?

Ben Minicucci:

I hope that my fingerprints on different parts of the company remain for a long time, that you can’t erase these fingerprints. The absolute focus on safety and operational excellence by being process-driven and metric-driven will always stay there. That’s something that says, “You know what, that was Ben’s baby and that is something we’re going to continue to do forever.” I hope that when my lap around the track is done… One of the big goals I had was to be a national brand. I said that when I started the role to say, look, right now, a lot of people, when they think about Alaska, they think about this regional airline that maybe flies only in the state of Alaska.

I hope that when I’m done… We say Alaska in the United States, that every person living in America will say, “Oh, that’s the airline that’s headquartered in Seattle. That’s maybe West Coast-based, but they fly everywhere, and they’re a phenomenal airline. They operate well. They care about their people. They care about their customers. They have such a great… They’re this great little boutique airline that, if I have a chance, I am going to fly them.” So this notion of us being a national brand, that everyone knows who we are and what we do would be the lasting fingerprint that I would want.

Ranjay Gulati:

What do you hope that your father, looking at you, who once described you as the master engineer, what do you hope he would describe you as?

Ben Minicucci:

Oh gosh, you’re going to make me cry now. In his words, he would say, “My God, I can’t believe he’s my son, my Italian little son became the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” I don’t know how he’d call it in his words, but I think he’d be incredibly proud.

Ranjay Gulati:

That’s Ben Minicucci, the Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Airlines, based in Seattle. For more of my conversations with leaders in the business world, navigating the 21st century business environment, visit my deeppurpose.net website. While you’re there, you can also find out about my book titled Deep Purpose. Companies that are serious about establishing and working towards a deep purpose find that it delivers game-changing results for the workers, shareholders, and larger society. So visit me at deeppurpose.net. This podcast is produced by David Shin and Stephen Smith with help from Jen Daniels and Craig McDonald. The theme music is by Gary Meister. I’m Ranjay Gulati. Thanks for listening.