By Maria Saporta
As the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s executive committee was meeting Thursday morning to select Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson as its 2014 chair, he was the keynote speaker at the Atlanta Interfaith Prayer Breakfast at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
Anderson’s talk centered on the themes of value-based leadership and community giving, but at no time in his talk did he give the attendees, who were mostly members of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, an inkling that he would be taking on one of the most important business civic roles in the region if not the state.
Anderson did however announce another major initiative he has agreed to co-chair with Paul Garcia, the CEO of Global Payments. Both of them will head up an effort to raise money for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra so it won’t continue to face an annual deficit.
Garcia said the goal is to have a three-year campaign that would raise between $3 million and $3.5 million a year to put the ASO on a sound financial footing. The symphony has been losing about $5 million a year for the past several years, and a new contract with musicians is resulting in an annual savings of about $2.4 million a year.
If Anderson and Garcia are successful, that means the ASO would be operating in the black for the first time in years.
That civic role is just one of many that Anderson has taken on in Atlanta. In 2011, he was the campaign chair of United Way for Greater Atlanta. And he has been an active board with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s Atlanta Committee for Progress.
Anderson’s community prayer at Thursday’s breakfast provided insights as to why he has agreed to these various civic roles.
“The only truly sustainable organizations over decades are value-based organizations,” Anderson said, adding that’s true whether it’s a city, a state, a company or a nonprofit.
For example, at Delta, Anderson said that the airline can put together a big enough flight manual to cover all the possible issues that can come up, such as needles being placed in turkey sandwiches that were offered to passengers. But a company that operates with a “fundamental set of guiding principles” can know how to navigate through different situations.
At Delta, Anderson said that he has been focused on the principles that were established by C.E. Woolman in 1946 in his Handbook for New Employees.
“What Mr. Woolman did was create a value system,” Anderson said. “All we’ve really done in the last six years at Delta, and four years before that…, is go back to those values. We had gotten the wheel in the ditch because we had lost sight of what our fundamental values were.”
So Anderson said his job was to get the wheels out of the ditch and back on the road. The company rewrote the original Woolman Handbook and called it the “Rules of the Road” — an eight paged pamphlet that sets the tone for the company.
He mentioned four principles, which he inherited from his parents and has been passing on to his children, that are strikingly similar to Rotary’s pledge.
1. Always tell the truth
2. Don’t hurt anyone
3. Always keep your word
4. Try harder than anybody else
At Delta, it’s not just about being profitable.
“We have a duty to invest in our people,” Anderson said. “If we take care of our employees, they will take care of our customers.. And if both our employees and customers are happy, shareholders will do well.”
But a successful equation goes beyond the company.
“How do we move forward in our community together?” Anderson asked the audience of nearly 800 attendees. “Many in the audience have dedicated themselves to service to others in the community. We all have that obligation.”
Rotary Clubs around the world have exemplified what it means to be part of a value based organization, he said.
“It’s a great lesson in life not to focus on yourself but to focus on your community,” Anderson said. “Let’s all think about how we can give back to the community; about how we can go back to those fundamental values that have made us a remarkable place.”
And then he talked about his next project — raising money for the symphony. Culture is all about helping make Atlanta a great city. People and companies move to Atlanta because of its great institutions as well as the art, music, opera and theater.
“What you think about what makes society civil, culture has a lot to do with it,” Anderson said adding that he would like the community to rally around the symphony in the same way it did Grady Hospital. “All lead to higher quality of life for people living in our community.“
After the breakfast, Anderson was asked about both his ASO role and about becoming the 2014 chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
“We’ve got to get the ASO fixed,” he said.
And about the chamber role, Anderson said: “I think the Chamber does good work. Everybody has to chip in and play a role.”
The Metro Atlanta Chamber has more than 4,000 member companies.
Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said in a statement released after the “Richard’s formidable leadership and experience are critical assets to help guide MAC through our strategic plan,” Williams stated. “We are excited to have the CEO of one of Atlanta’s hometown companies and most well-known brands as our 2014 chair-elect to help us tell our story.”
Anderson is a native of Galveston, Texas. He began his career with the airline industry in 1987 working for Continental Airlines as deputy general counsel. In 1990, he joined Northwest Airlines, eventually becoming its CEO. Anderson was already a member of Delta’s board when he was named its CEO in September, 2007.