Every year, sadly, we lose extraordinary entrepreneurs. This year is particularly notable for the passing of an all-time great: Herb Kelleher, founde
Every year, sadly, we lose extraordinary entrepreneurs. This year is particularly notable for the passing of an all-time great: Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. The rise of Southwest coincided with the rise of fast-growth companies in the United States and with our understanding of the individualistic, idiosyncratic nature of entrepreneurship. And like Kelleher, all of these accomplished founders who died in 2019 were exemplars of that brave, I-do-it-my-way approach to business.
1. Herb Kelleher (January 3)
Herb Kelleher forever changed two things: the U.S. airline industry and our perception of what a company’s culture should be. Kelleher founded Southwest Airlines in 1971 to “democratize” the skies by making air travel affordable to all. He used fuel-efficient planes, secondary airports, and pared-down services to keep prices low on the consistently profitable airline. But cheap didn’t have to mean joyless. Kelleher trusted his well-paid, well-treated, fun-loving employees to make customers happy. And he embodied that spirit of fun himself, dressing like Elvis, arm-wrestling a competitor for the rights to a slogan, and encouraging flight attendants to joke with passengers. He famously put employees first, and they loved him for it, once taking out a full-page ad in USA Today to let him know how much. On a wall in Southwest’s headquarters is a button. Press it and you’ll hear a recording of Kelleher’s laugh.
2. Arlen Ness (March 22)
Arlen Ness was the Alexander McQueen of chopper designers. He started building custom bikes in the ’70s, outrageous vehicles with gold-plated wheels, plush seats, ram’s-horn handlebars and psychedelic paint jobs; and created the first theme bikes modeled after iconic cars like the ’57 Chevy and the French Bugatti. Arlen Ness Motorcycles–which he funded, in part, with winnings from bowling–at first just did paint jobs, then became a major national mail-order business selling custom parts. In later years the Bay Area-based company opened several showrooms; built custom parts for Harley, Victory, and Indian motorcycles; and expanded into its own mass-produced bikes, which retained Ness’s trademark glam. Ness also appeared on television shows like Let It Ride, which starred his grandson, and the competitive Biker Build-Off, which he lost–to his son.
3. Winston Shelton (April 15)
It was a historic meeting. In 1967 Winston Shelton, an engineer who was instrumental in designing General Electric’s first automatic washer, was approached by Colonel Harlan Sanders. Shelton had launched a company–later called Winston Industries–to work on engineering projects alongside his GE job. The Colonel was looking for ways to reduce cooking times at Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. Shelton created the Collectramatic, which continuously fried batches of chicken and turbocharged Kentucky Fried Chicken’s growth. It quickly became the fryer of choice in commercial kitchens. Winston Industries had other huge successes, most notably the CVap oven, which preserves the moisture in food waiting to be served. Shelton, who won 76 patents, also developed the CVap for Sanders, but now the product is used by everyone from fast-food cooks to famous chefs.
4. Henry W. Bloch (April 23)
The “H” in H&R Block stands for “Henry,” who founded the tax preparation company in 1955 with his brother Richard. (“Bloch” became “Block” to prevent mispronunciation.) Initially tax prep was just an add-on service offered by the brothers for their bookkeeping clients. But their timing was good: The IRS was getting out of free tax prep in the Blochs’ hometown of St. Louis, and demand soared. The brothers expanded to New York, switched to a franchise model, and took the company public in 1962. A leader in computerizing the industry, H&R Block helped the IRS introduce electronic filing. Today the company has more than 12,000 offices and has prepared north of 800 million returns. But most people remember Henry Bloch from his appearances in his company’s 1970s TV commercials: a reassuring guy in a suit who promised to save you every dollar possible.
5. Curtis Blake (May 24)
Curtis Blake was 18–his brother S. Prestley Blake, 20–in 1935 when the pair started an ice cream shop, called Friendly, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The brothers’ Depression-era value proposition was double-dip cones for 5 cents, half what the competition charged. Five years later they added another store, plus hamburgers. By the 1970s Friendly was a chain of more than 500 full-service restaurants. The Blakes sold the company to Hershey Foods in 1979 for $163 million. In subsequent years it was sold again, went public, and entered and emerged from bankruptcy. Today the business, whose name was tweaked to the now-familiar Friendly’s in 1989, has around 170 corporate and franchised stores and also sells through supermarkets. It is owned by a private-equity firm. The Jubilee Roll and Fribble shake endure.
6. Gary Burrell (June 12)
People get lost a lot less thanks to Gary Burrell. In the 1980s Burrell was an executive at a company that made navigational devices when he met Taiwanese engineer Min Gao. At the time the U.S. government had begun making the military-grade Global Positioning System (GPS) available for consumer applications. Burrell and Gao invested $4 million of their own and relatives’ money to launch Garmin (a combination of their names), which became the largest global manufacturer of GPS devices. Starting with a GPS for boats, the co-CEOs expanded into automobiles, planes, and even fitness devices. Garmin IPO’d in 2000 and today employs 13,000 people. Revenues are upward of $3 billion.
7. Ross Perot (July 9)
Long before Howard Schultz and Mark Cuban nursed White House ambitions, Ross Perot showed how an entrepreneur might run for President: with straight talk and lots of charts. The Texas billionaire is best remembered for his populist rhetoric during the 1992 campaign that presaged the Tea Party and President Trump. But he was a founder first, launching Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in 1962 and building it into a huge IT outsourcing company. EDS benefited greatly from contracts to service the new programs Medicaid and Medicare in the 1960s; Perot took it public in 1968. After selling EDS to General Motors for $2.5 billion–and resigning in disgust from GM’s board–he launched another IT company, Perot Systems, which focused on health care. His son Ross Perot Jr. became CEO in 2000, and Michael Dell bought the business in 2009.
8. T. Boone Pickens (September 11)
Big oil attracts big personalities. And none was bigger than T. Boone Pickens, founder of Mesa Petroleum, once one of the world’s largest independent oil companies. Over 40 years at Mesa, Pickens made runs at behemoths like Gulf, Phillips, and Unocal. He claimed managers ran those businesses in their own interests and called himself a champion of shareholder rights. But the bids failed; Pickens and the shareholders profited handsomely by selling their stock; and he became known as a corporate raider. In 1996 Pickens founded a hedge fund that invested chiefly in traditional energy and soon after that founded Pickens Fuel Corp.–later called Clean Energy–a natural gas company.
9. Don Valentine (October 25)
Venture capital is an American creation. And one of VC’s creators was Don Valentine. An early denizen of Silicon Valley–he was an executive at seminal companies Fairchild Semiconductor and its spinout National Semiconductor–Valentine in 1972 launched Sequoia Capital, which has invested in more than 500 tech companies and helped to establish the region’s innovation primacy. Sequoia’s starry portfolio included Apple and Atari (Valentine served on both boards), Oracle, and Cisco Systems, where he was the longtime chairman. Electronic Arts and Sierra Semiconductor both were born in Sequoia’s offices. Valentine was famous, among other things, for the question on which he evaluated the founders of every startup: “Who cares?”
10. Gert Boyle (November 3)
For almost 50 years Gert Boyle was the caustic, profane, smart-as-hell face of Columbia Sportswear, the company founded by her father after the family’s escape from Nazi Germany. Working as a seamstress in the early days Boyle made one of Columbia’s first fishing vests; in 1970 she took the company’s helm when her husband died at age 47. Boyle reinvented the struggling business to focus on outdoor leisure clothing–the Bugaboo coat was one huge hit–and starred as “Ma Boyle” in the wildly successful “One Tough Mother” commercials from 1985 to 2004. Her son Tim became president in 1988: Boyle was chairman when Columbia went public 10 years later. She signed every company check into her 80s.
11. Jake Burton Carpenter (November 20)
Snowboarding is a sport for rebels. Small wonder, then, that it it appealed to Jake Burton Carpenter, who as founder and CEO of Burton Snowboards helped popularize that wintry pursuit and elevate it to Olympic stature. Carpenter went through 100 prototypes before producing the Burton Backhill-;among the earliest snowboards–in a Vermont barn. When he couldn’t sell them (in 1977 no one had heard of snowboarding) he concentrated on promoting the sport. Burton Snowboards sponsored the first U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships as well as the world’s greatest snowboarders, whose feedback Carpenter solicited on all products. Soon he was incorporating high-tech ski-production techniques discovered in Austria. A snowboarder on a Burton took the gold when that sport debuted at the Olympics in 1998. Even as the company swelled above 1000 employees and he struggled with health issues, Carpenter managed to snowboard 100 days a year.
12. Mark Butler (December 1)
“Get Good Stuff Cheap!” Value propositions don’t get much plainer than the one for Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, founded in 1982 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania by Mark Butler and three partners. The business, which sells closeout merchandise and excess inventory, eventually grew to 345 “semi-lovely” (by the company’s own assessment) warehouse-type stores in 25 states. Butler, who became CEO in 2003, pulled off one of this century’s great pure brick-and-mortar plays, doubling sales between 2015 and 2019 to more than $1 billion without ever resorting to the internet. Every Ollie’s outlet became profitable in its first year, according to Forbes, and Butler turned up for every opening. He was also there to ring the NASDAQ bell when Ollie’s went public in 2015.
This article is from Inc.com