By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on July 7, 2017
When Delta Air Lines held its annual meeting in New York City at 7:30 a.m. on June 29, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was not there.
Franklin had just spent the better part of two days attending events and meetings for Delta directors including a dinner June 27 to bid her farewell from the board. She, along with fellow director Kenneth Woodrow, had reached the mandatory retirement age of 72.
When asked why she wasn’t attending the annual meeting, Franklin responded, “It’s at 7:30 in the morning! And I need to get back to Atlanta.”
Although she is exiting the board, Delta’s top leaders said Franklin’s presence will continue to be felt.
“Shirley was, and is, fantastic. She’ll stay involved,” said Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, after the annual meeting. “Shirley has been a mentor to me, and she will continue to be.”
But Bastian also added that Delta’s dedication to Atlanta will continue regardless of whether a former Atlanta mayor is on the board.
“We will always make certain we have a strong Atlanta contingent on our board,” Bastian said. “Our relationship with Atlanta is critical to the success of Delta and the community at large.”
Delta’s board currently has two strong outside directors from Atlanta: Frank Blake, retired CEO of The Home Depot Inc., who serves as Delta’s board chairman; and Kathy Waller, chief financial officer of The Coca-Cola Co.
“Clearly Shirley has a perspective on Atlanta that none of us have,” Blake said. “I hope we can continue to draw on her expertise and insights on Atlanta. She’s not someone you can replace. But Ed and the rest of the leadership team is conscientious about Atlanta. Even without Shirley, we will continue to have a strong relationship with the city. Atlanta is very important to Delta; and Delta is very important to Atlanta.”
In April 2016, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, along with then-Delta CEO Richard Anderson, signed a 20-year lease agreement with a 10-year extension for the airline to operate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The agreement requires Delta to keep its corporate headquarters in Atlanta for the duration of the lease.
“It brings stability to the relationship,” Franklin said of the lease. “Delta and Atlanta have been partners at the airport for a very long time.”
But Franklin remembered when that partnership was fragile — largely due to the fact that Delta had entered into bankruptcy.
She remembered former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young coming to her office at City Hall saying they needed to make a phone call together. They called then-Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein to offer the city’s support for the airline during those troubled times.
“Years later, Jerry told me we were among a handful of people who called right away,” Franklin said.
Interestingly enough, Young had served on Delta’s board from 1994 to April 2004, following his 72nd birthday.
“Andy had been off the board for years when I came on the board,” said Franklin, who served as Atlanta’s mayor from 2002 to 2010 and joined Delta’s board in July 2011.
By that time, Delta also had survived a 2006 hostile takeover bid by U.S. Airways. It had merged with Northwest Air Lines — a deal announced on April 15, 2008 — and there was great fear the headquarters would move to the Minneapolis-St Paul region, the home of NWA and its CEO Richard Anderson.
Delta and Anderson made the decision to keep the airline’s headquarters in Atlanta.
“When I went on, I was the only person from Atlanta,” said Franklin, adding that Paula Rosput Reynolds, the former CEO of Atlanta-based AGL Resources, was on the board, but she had moved to Seattle five years earlier.
“Delta had just come out of bankruptcy,” Franklin said. “Today, I think it’s one of the best airlines in the world. I really have appreciated having had the opportunity to serve. It’s been exciting to watch Delta go from one success to another.”
Franklin also said diversity is important to Delta. Although she is no longer on the board, it still has two women directors and two African-Americans — including Coca-Cola’s Waller, who joined the board in July 2015.
“As an Atlanta native, a 30-year associate with Coca-Cola and a million-miler with Delta, being affiliated with both companies is very special,” Waller said. “Delta and Coca-Cola place a high value on connectivity with Atlanta community leaders. These last two years working with the entire board and, in particular, with Shirley, have been phenomenal. She always made herself available to me as I was learning about Delta, and we’ve all benefited from her wise perspective and counsel.”
At the 2017 annual meeting, Bastian was basking in the success. The night before, the airline had reached its highest market capitalization in history. And on June 29, Delta was going to be flying an all-time record number of passengers — 651,000 — in one day.
“We had gone through a tough time,” Bastian said of Delta’s earlier days. “It feels great for our people to have resurrected and saved the company, and now they can enjoy the fruit of that hard work.”
Part of the chatter around the annual meeting centered on the news announced June 26 that former CEO Anderson had been selected to serve as president and CEO of Amtrak.
“I think it’s great for our country that he is taking on that challenge,” Bastian said after the annual meeting. “It will be fantastic for Amtrak.”
Blake said, “I think he’ll do a great job.”
“It’s a really tough job, but Richard loves challenges,” she said. “He’s a strong leader and hard worker.”
Blake also said Delta has benefited from having strong leaders during difficult times.
“I thought the world of Richard, and I think the world of Ed,” Blake said.
In fact, Blake said one of the reasons he was asked by Anderson to join Delta’s board in 2014 was because he was from Atlanta.
“It was not irrelevant,” Blake said.
Going forward, Blake said he believes the relationship between Delta and Atlanta will continue to be strong no matter who becomes the next mayor.
Asked whether Delta would ever move its annual meeting out of New York and hold it in Atlanta, Bastian said that would be the board’s decision. It has been held in New York because “a majority of our shareowners are New York-based.”
Blake, however, made it sound like such a move was possible.
“We are talking about it,” Blake said. “That’s an open item.”