How the world’s biggest airport got its new leader
By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Sept. 14, 2018
The search for a new general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport took several twists and turns.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told the search committee to be open to all possibilities, including recommending someone from outside the aviation industry. She also told them not to feel constrained by Atlanta’s salary range of $220,000 to $320,000. And she said the city might even be willing to offer a contract – something her predecessor never wanted to do.
In the end, Mayor Bottoms selected John Selden, deputy general manager of New York’s JFK Airport, from a list of five finalists presented by the independent search committee on June 21. It took nearly three months for the mayor announce her pick because she wanted to meet with each of the five finalists in person.
Selden is an aviation professional (even though he’s never held the top job at an airport); he agreed to join the city for a salary in the $275,000 range; and he was willing to accept the job without a contract, according to sources familiar with the process.
Carol Tomé, chief financial officer of The Home Depot Inc. (NYSE: HD), co-chaired the search along with David Abney, CEO of United Parcel Service Inc. (NYSE: UPS).
“We scanned the universe and got to a diverse list of candidates,” Tomé said in a telephone interview on Sept. 11. “We delivered five candidates who were vetted through a thorough process. We were looking for a few things: Someone with a great reputation with all the stakeholders. We were looking for candidates who were grounded in the operational aspects (of an airport), and we were looking for candidates who had a passion for Atlanta.”
Tomé actually had chaired the search process for two previous airport general managers — one in 2010 and one in 2014. Both searches were during former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, and Reed had stipulated that a key requirement in those searches was someone who had been the top executive at an airport.
The list of five finalists presented to Mayor Bottoms did include a couple of top airport executives, but Selden impressed the mayor and her team with his style and personality. He came prepared with strategic ideas, and he expressed a desire to become integrally involved in the Atlanta community.
“If we had any concerns about him, we would not have pushed him forward,” Tomé said. “No matter who it was going to be, it was going to be a step up [for them].” That refrain was repeated by several people interviewed for this story. Atlanta’s next airport general manager most certainly would not have the experience of running the world’s busiest airport, so any new executive would have to step up into that role.
What set Selden apart from the other candidates was his professionalism and willingness to become a community leader.
“John has a particular interest in our city,” Tomé said. “He loves the arts. And John is excited about the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Atlanta Rotary and the Woodruff Arts Center.”
Selden’s military background was a plus as well as his commitment to ethical leadership.
“In John Selden, we have a man of high integrity who will stand on his values and who will get involved in the Atlanta community,” said Zack Deming, a search consultant with Korn Ferry, who has handled the searches for Atlanta’s airport general manager in 2010, 2014 and 2018. “He is someone we are lucky to have coming to Atlanta.”
Tomé said this year’s airport commissioner search committee included Abney, Georgia Tech’s Catherine Ross, Coca-Cola’s Bea Perez and Jamestown’s Matt Bronfman. Unlike the two previous searches, it was not staffed by the Mayor’s office but by Duriya Farooqui, executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress.
“It was good to have a truly independent search,” Tomé said.
The general manager of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson is one of the most important positions in the city. In a statement released Sept. 11, Mayor Bottoms said: “Hartsfield-Jackson is without question one of our city and state’s most valuable assets, with an annual economic impact of nearly $35 billion for metro Atlanta. It has allowed our city to become a gateway to the world and it serves as a critical cargo hub for North America. I am excited that we have identified someone with the qualifications and passion of John Selden to lead our airport into the future.”
Farooqui said both the mayor and the committee were looking for a “seasoned executive who had operational experience at a major airport. Ideally it would be someone who also had significant capital expansion experience, and a leader who knew how to work with a partner airline.”
The City of Atlanta also is interested in stability and having someone stay awhile. Since 2010, the following leaders have served as Hartsfield-Jackson’s general manager — either as the permanent or interim executive or both: Ben DeCosta, Mario Diaz, Louis Miller, Miguel Southwell, Roosevelt Council and Balram Bheordari.
Although no one from Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL) was on the search committee, it was considered a plus that Selden had experience at JFK, a major Delta hub. As a major stakeholder in Hartsfield-Jackson, Delta was part of the vetting process during the search. The airline issued a statement Sept. 11 about Selden.
“Delta looks forward to working with Mr. Selden in his new role as general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and welcoming him to our hometown,” the statement read. “His experience as deputy general manager with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at New York-JFK airport, home to another major global airport operation, positions him well as we continue our mutual work to improve efficiency and the customer experience at ATL.”
Selden is coming on board during a particularly volatile time. There is a federal investigation of corruption at the city and the airport. The state also is holding meetings to consider a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson. And the airport is in the middle of a $6 billion capital campaign.
Tomé said that in their interviews with candidates, those issues did not appear to be obstacles in Atlanta’s search. This list of candidates was narrowed down largely because of where people were in their careers and not wanting to leave their current positions.
“Not everybody was available,” Tomé said. “There were many people we approached who turned us down…. You get to a point where you whittle down the list.”
She added that in discussions with candidates, the issue of the federal investigation came up. But Tomé said the committee told candidates that those issues were about the past, and the new general manager would be focused on the future.
One of the trickier issues, however, was the amount Atlanta had been paying its commissioners to run the busiest airport in the world — about $220,000 for the previous three general managers. As one person said: “The compensation was a joke.”
For example, the commissioner of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport makes about $500,000; the commissioner in Los Angeles makes in the $400,000 range; and the commissioners at several smaller airports are making at least $300,000. Many of those also have multi-year employment contracts.
But with Selden, who has been making $192,738 at JFK, the City of Atlanta could easily put together a competitive compensation package to bring him to Atlanta. And Selden did not require an employment contract, choosing instead to trust the Bottoms’ administration.
Selden, who did not return repeated phone calls requesting an interview, has agreed to come on board on Oct. 1, but first his selection must be approved by the Atlanta City Council.