• U.S.

A Yankee Preacher in the Pilot’s Seat

6 minute read
Stephen Koepp

When Donald Burr was in high school, he told everyone he wanted to become a clergyman. Growing up in the 1950s in the tidy town of South Windsor, Conn., the boy saw his local Congregational church as the most admirable kind of organization. It was free and feisty, yet disciplined in its work. Burr instead embarked on a career that led him to found a free and feisty airline, People Express.

As a manager, Burr has a penchant for delivering sermons to his flock on how to do a better job. He zealously believes that his populist, everybody-is-important organization can make a better world, or at least a better kind of capitalism. Says William Hambrecht, a San Francisco financier whose firm helped Burr raise $24 million to start the company: “Don Burr is really operating from a philosophical base, rather than a financial one. Monetary success is almost incidental. He’s after much more than that.”

Burr’s pulpit these days is an office at Newark Airport’s North Terminal. On one side of the room, his windows overlook an arena-size lobby where thousands of passengers wait, eat, sleep and often grumble. Windows on the opposite wall face the runways, where People’s jets streak skyward toward Los Angeles, London and 47 other destinations. Burr’s office is bus-station Spartan, like his airline. In the place where a conventional executive’s couch would sit, he has a row of three first-class seats from a 747.

Since People’s corporate structure is relatively free of middle managers, Burr is no remote Mr. Big to his workers. He sits down on a regular basis with all 1,000 of the airline’s team leaders, about 20 at a time, in sessions that can run up to eight hours. All the while, Burr gulps coffee from a porcelain mug. “They think my meetings are too long,” he says. “I like that. It means we go into detail.” Burr first listens to their problems and ideas, but then he asks for the sky and the clouds. Says Burr: “This is a very driven place.”

In all aspects of his life, Burr, 44, is gripped by something he calls the “perfection imperative.” He quit smoking 2½ years ago, for example, wants to lose 20 lbs. and frets about his caffeine habit. Burr thinks everyone has the same imperative, but his constant effort to draw it out of subordinates can sometimes backfire. Four top aides have quit, and another was fired. Said one insider: “He divides the world into people who overdeliver and those who underdeliver.”

Distantly related to Aaron Burr, who was Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President when he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, the People Express chairman was a brash achiever from the start. His father was an M.I.T.-trained engineer and his mother a social worker, and young Burr remembers going to the neighborhood drugstore to admire not only its candy counter but also the proprietor’s efficient storekeeping methods. In high school Burr sang in the barbershop quartet and played saxophone in the band. He went in for varsity soccer, basketball and baseball, and proceeded straight to the expert slope his first time on skis. Burr embraced a romantic notion that he could make any team if he tried hard enough. Recalls his mother, Lorna Banks, 80: “He was always a very sentimental and emotional boy. He always had great faith and appreciation for people.”

Burr went on to earn an economics degree at Stanford and a Harvard M.B.A. He always had a fascination with airlines, and so at 24 he took a job at Wall Street’s National Aviation, a mutual fund dealing in airline securities. Six years later, after proving an astute stock picker, he became its president. He left in 1973 to join troubled Texas International Airlines and rose to be chief operating officer within three years. One of his first steps was to begin trying out radical fare discounts to boost business. But Burr soon began to form a more revolutionary vision of an airline that could offer extremely low fares and operate with a loose style of management.

He quit Texas International in January 1980 to start his own airline. “He’s absolutely fearless,” a member of People’s board of directors observes. “He takes business risks that are unbelievable.” As he assembled People Express in Newark, the new boss used Army-style screening tests to make sure job applicants had the same daring spirit that he did. By November 1980 Burr had gathered together a band of renegades who were attracted by People’s you’re-the-boss structure. They included a flight scheduler and a personnel manager. The new company issued stock, raising enough cash to buy 17 used 737 jets. Five months later People Express made its maiden flight, from Newark to Buffalo.

Since then People’s rapid growth has put immense pressure on Burr. A member of People’s board of directors even feared that the company’s acquisition of Frontier in October might be “a bridge too far for him” in terms of work load. Indeed, Burr often rises as early as 5:30 a.m. and begins work in the study of his white clapboard home in Bernardsville, N.J. There he toils all day Mondays, usually wearing a flannel shirt, baggy jeans and deck shoes. During the rest of the week he dons a business suit and drives 40 minutes to the airport in his metallic-gray BMW.

Burr’s three sons and daughter are forgiving about his long hours, although they have complained that he does not permit his family the free flying privileges that most airline executives give their children. Burr and his wife Bridget, who was a cheerleader for his high school basketball team, occasionally manage to take the family to their ski condo in Park City, Utah, and to a home on Martha’s Vineyard.

Burr can now afford a few such comforts. The 6.1% of People Express he holds is worth almost $13 million. Burr also takes time for a daily three-to-six-mile jog, during which he does his blue-sky thinking. He has run eleven marathons, including New York City’s. His best performance on the 26.2-mile course: 3:40:42. That poses no threat to champion runners, but rival airline bosses might worry about what Burr is thinking on those long hauls. It was during a jog one morning in Houston that Burr came up with the concept for People Express. –By Stephen Koepp. Reported by Frederick Ungeheuer/New York

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com