tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations Bloomberg December 15, 2019 10:00am-10:30am EST
♪ david: why is it that wall street doesn't value airlines as much as you think they should? ed: our largest investor is warren buffett. he said, you guys are the chicago cubs of the business world. badd: you not only had a decade, you had a bad century. initially, you went to frito-lay? ed: i consider that my postgraduate work. david: what percentage of people actually lose their luggage? ed: we never lose. we call it mishandled. david: mishandled. [laughter] >> would you fix your tie, please? david: well, people wouldn't recognize me if my tie was fixed, but ok. just leave it this way. alright. ♪
♪ david: i don't consider myself a journalist. and nobody else would consider myself a journalist. i began to take on the life of being an interviewer even though i have a day job of running a private equity firm. how do you define leadership? what is it that makes somebody tick? ♪ david: people say running an airline is not an easy thing to do. you have weather to deal with, energy prices, but you grew up in a family of nine children, so what is easier? [laughter] growing up in a family of nine children, or running an airline? ed: running an airline, certainly. our family was great. i am the oldest of nine. i was sharing with david earlier that when i was five years old, we already had six kids in the house, nine kids sharing three bedrooms.
1.5 baths. my dad was a dentist, he had his practice inside our house. and my mom worked for him. david: wasn't that busy a practice -- [laughter] ed: he must have had some gaps in his schedule. the interesting thing about it growing up, i didn't get on , airplane until i was 25. david: really? ed: we could not afford it. too many of us, and it just wasn't who we were. of myys recall one visions from my childhood, we went on a family trip a year. my dad would get us all in the station wagon. apologies to our safety friends and regulators in the audience, but no seat belts, no car seats. there were nine of us, my mom, my dad, my grandmother in the station wagon all piled in. , we were allowed to put whatever we could fit in our pillowcase. we brought it for two weeks. and that was our family trip. ini must have figured summer
my unconscious that there has to be a better way to travel. [laughter] ed: i am still pursuing that mission today. must must beother proud that her son, her oldest son is the ceo of delta airlines, the largest u.s. air carrier. ed: the largest in the world. david: that she ever call you with ideas or complaints? ed: all the time. she gives me her ideas. i always ask her when she is traveling not to tell anybody who she is. that never lasts. people have told me she applauds at the end of the safety announcement that i do. [laughter] david: you travel on delta yourself, so you fly coach? ed: often. i find it more interesting back there. david: what about the legroom? ed: the legroom is fine. [laughter] ed: what you find when you're flying coach is that it's more entertaining, so you don't worry about your legroom, you are
looking at everything else going on. that is where the real people are. that is where the party is. david: let's talk about running an airline generally. to be honest, there are a lot of people that say, if you want to run an airline or a good business, go to a business school or work your way up to be a management expert, and so forth, but you were trained as an accountant. but some people would say that the best managers are not cpas. david: one of the things about accountants that i think they get a bad rap is that they all about the numbers, introverted, very into their analysis. what you learn as an accountant is the numbers are actually the language and the vocabulary of business. david: for some reason, wall street doesn't value airline companies as much as you say they should. why is it that wall street does not value airlines as much as you think they should? ed: we are moving in that direction. we are still not there. our largest investor is warren buffett. he now owns 11% of delta.
and worn, after years of swearing off the industry, he said you guys are the chicago cubs of the business world. you not only had a bad decade, you had a bad century. [laughter] ed: we got our bad century out of the way. and we are now in a place where we have really fixed the business. david: you changed his mind, because he is to say, "if a capitalist had been at kitty hawk seeing the wright brothers take off, he would've shot them down." because there were no profits made in the airline industry for 100 years versus the profits now. but it has changed a bit now? ed: it has changed. he wouldn't say that today. this year will be the fifth year in a row our profits have been in excess of $5 billion. david: and your revenues our -- what percentage in the u.s., what percentage outside? ed: two thirds u.s., one third international. david: international, is that more profitable than u.s. generally because of the long flights? ed: it is the opposite. international is more difficult to get to. the planes are bigger, the fuel costs more, the service levels are substantially higher, and
ticket prices, because of a lot of competition internationally, are more suppressed. we make 80% of our profits in the u.s. david: you make a lot of profits by owning your own refinery. why do you need your own refinery? you don't trust other people to get gasoline to you? ed: we do. we certainly use a lot of refineries. but about six or seven years ago, as refineries up and down the east coast were being closed when oil prices and crude prices were north of $100, we saw our cost of jet fuel was escalating. we were in fact paying another $25 a barrel on top of the crude prices to get jet fuel. because we are the most price-insensitive consumers of that product. we don't decide each day whether we will fuel up planes or not. we tell them six months out that we are coming, so any of the costs refiners have were being pushed onto the airlines. so we needed to get more supply in the market. we have got a great refinery outside of philadelphia that we
acquired. we opened it -- it was closed for about a year -- we put a whole community back to work. it was a great story. to this day, it has been very profitable. we have earned our returns on that many fold. david: in the 1970's, there was a big push for airline deregulation. prices had been set by the icc. ed: that's right. we then probably had 10 or 12 major domestic airlines. now, we have three or four. has deregulation really worked for the american people or not? ed: it has absolutely worked. one of the changes in the industry that caused problems for years, was that we were seen just as a commodity. price was almost the sole determinant of what airline you took. we have changed that paradigm where we are now competing on quality, service and people. david: suppose i say i want a cheap price but i want some good food, is food a big deal to people who fly these days? ed: food is important. we have brought a lot of food act.
the industry 15 years ago wound gettingng rid of food, rid of basically anything and wound up charging fees galore. we have come full circle. we have reintroduced main cabin food services on our aircraft. and in international, really improving the overall quality. david: suppose i say i don't care about food. can you bring your own food on? ed: you can bring your own food on. david: bring my own food on, and i just want to make sure my luggage is not lost. what percentage of people actually lose their luggage? ed: we never lose. we call them mishandled. david: mishandled. [laughter] [applause] ed: we always know where it is, it just takes as a little longer to get to sometimes. [laughter] david: when you are an airline executive, you basically have two companies you can buy airplanes from. more or less. ed: two, not more or less. david: more or less -- i was trying to be polite -- that more
or less. you have boeing and you have airbus. you fly a lot of boeings. in fact, your longest flight is from atlanta to johannesburg, 17 hours? boeing 777? ed: that's right. david: but you chose not to buy the 737 max, for reasons unrelated to what later became a problem. is that an advantage to you now, because you have the airbus 321 and you have more capacity than some of your competitors, and you take credit for that decision or was that luck? ed: i put that solely in the rather be lucky than smart category. we are big fans of boeing, and we're hoping to see the max fly quickly into the skies, but safety was never a part of the consideration in making that decision. david: while you are in bankruptcy, u.s. air said, we want to take it over. was that a friendly offer? ed: everybody assumed that was going to be a foregone conclusion. the people of the company stood and said that is not going to happen. ♪
price waterhouse, i moved quickly through the ranks there made partner when i was already , 32, 33 years old. at that point, in that profession, that was kind of the pinnacle of success. i said i need to go someplace to learn more and continue to develop. i got a call from a friend that said pepsi was hiring, and introduced me to a person in frito-lay. down in texas. i moved down to dallas at frito-lay. i don't have a graduate degree. i just went to an undergrad at saint bonaventure. i always consider my seven years at pepsico as my postgraduate, work because it is a fascinating company. david: you are at frito-lay and then a headhunter called you and said, how about delta airlines? ed: i was traveling 80% of my time, a lot of international. traveled. i thought i already knew how the airlines worked. i knew the things that needed to be fixed about the airlines to make it better.
of course, you get there and you actually take a peek behind the curtains and see how complex it is. it was an industry that was fascinating to me because i was a big consumer of it. david: so you became a senior vice president for finance, then you became the chief financial officer. ed: chief financial officer. david: then you became the president, then the ceo in may of 2016, right? ed: that's correct. david: you had some problems before you became the ceo and ultimately, delta filed for bankruptcy in 2005. why did you have to file for bankruptcy? ed: it was the aftermath of a series of events which 9/11 triggered. we lost our international business almost overnight. so many airlines trying to get each other's share pushing , prices lower and lower. almost all the airlines wound up filing. david: while you are in
bankruptcy, usair said they want to take you over. was that a friendly offer? ed: doug parker will never live that down. no, we had a pretty hostile takeover battle. interesting story, we were bankrupt, we weren't worth anything at the time. usair offered $10 billion to buy delta for a company that is not worth anything. so everyone assumed, well, that's going to be a foregone conclusion. the people of the company stood , and they said, it is not going to happen, we have a better idea, we have a better business plan. we convinced the creditors to stay with delta, and you see what we have been able to do. david: as part of that, what happened is, you said to the employees and colleagues we will give you 10% of the profits, is that more or less right? ed: when we went through the restructuring, people took a lot of pay cuts. benefit losses, a lot of change. we made a commitment to the employees then that once we became profitable, 15% of the profits would go back to the people, which we honor to this day.
david: so how much did that produce, let's say last year for , employees? ed: last year, we paid $1.3 billion in profit sharing. david: does that mean your stock price would be higher if you did not pay it to them, or you have happier employees? ed: i think our stock price would be lower if we didn't pay it. david: is internet available on all your planes? ed: it is available on almost all of our planes. our smaller regional jets do not have them but wi-fi is on all of them. david: you charge for it? ed: not for a good reason. i am a firm believer that we across make wi-fi free all our planes, and we are working towards that. [applause] david: you are the ceo. so you presumably have some influence. [laughter] ed: i do have influence. they've heard me hundreds of times, including gogo which is our service provider. i called them nogo. they have made a lot of progress, now slowgo, and they will eventually get to gogo. [laughter]
one of the reasons, you don't pay for internet practically anywhere else is that planes do not have the technical capacity and capability that we made it for free, the system would crash. so once it gets about above a 10% take rate on board, the performance starts to erode. if you test it, it is still not at the level it needs to be. so we are investing heavily in the technical capacity in terms of the satellite spectrum. david: you mean that we can fly to the moon and back, and we can't have everybody using the internet on the plane at the same time? ed: exactly. you sound like me, david. one of the things i tell people is we are closer to the satellites in the sky, but as they remind me, we are not traveling 500 miles per hour as we are sitting at home with our wi-fi broadband. david: now, there was a proposal a while ago for airlines to let people talk on their cell phones on airplanes, but that was voted down i think by the fcc. ed: that was voted down by me. i said, i will never allow that. whether they allow it or not, we are not allowing it. [applause]
david: ok. now, we haven't built a new airport in this country of any size since, i think 23 years in denver. now, laguardia is being redone and so forth. why is the airline industry -- and you are responsible for helping to build the airports? or not? ed: we are actually building airports ourselves. we got tired of waiting for the government partnerships out there. trying to crack that code. we have massively improved the flight experience, the onboard experience. the next thing is the airports themselves. the airports in our country were built for the 1960's. david: you are building airports where? ed: we are building airports everywhere. building the new laguardia airport, delta on its own balance sheet, it is going to take a few years. airport construction is the most difficult construction that is done because you have to build it, live it and operate it at the same time. we are building a new airport in lax, a new airport in salt lake
city. we modernized atlanta. david: speaking of government support, you have been an advocate for not allowing airlines that have government subsidies to compete against you. is that a problem? ed: it is a big problem. i have to give the trump administration great credit for recognizing that and reaching agreements to try to draw attention to it and stop it. -- agreements with the uae and qatar last year to draw attention to it and stop it, or at least freezing where it's at. david: are they doing anything about it? what will happen? ed: they are being responsive to the administration. today in the persian gulf, 30 there are 30 airplanes a day that fly between the persian gulf and the u.s., not one of them is a u.s. airline. they are all middle eastern airlines. if there was a fair playing field, there is no question that the u.s. airlines but wee operating, can't, because those fares are subsidized, and the costs are paid for by the government.
dave goetsch of the air traffic control systems, some people say that it was invented in the 1950's and 1960's and they have not modernized much. is it really out of date? ed: absolutely. david: what are you doing about that, what can you do? ed: it is absolutely safe, but unfortunately, it is radar based. many cars have better gps than what we access in our airplanes. the opportunities to improve the air traffic control system are not only speed for the customers, but it is the efficiency, sustainability of the environment, the opportunity to make a difference. government dysfunction has been one of the reasons why the air traffic control system -- because you have that f.a.a. on a five-year leash. aircan't change out the traffic control systems with our current funding models. that is why we have been advocating for different models. most countries around the world have better air traffic control systems than the u.s. does. ♪ david: you have a pattern of meeting with employees fairly regularly called the velvet program. ed: when we went through hard times, we did not have a lot of cash. we decided the only way we would be successful again is we have
♪ david: so today, what do you do for outside activities? this is a full-time job , obviously, but do you have time for anything else? ed: i love to golf. i don't get much time and i not am not very good at it, but i do enjoy that. we do serious work. we do hard work. and i think it's important for myself to remind myself while i might do serious things not to , take myself too seriously. it is a reminder to stay light
on my feet, to remember the importance of human interaction. [laughter] ed: i did also run the new york marathon last year. david: two hours and -- ed: that was the first few miles. [laughter] david: but you finished. ed: i finished. i wore my delta colors loud and proud. raised $2 million for cancer research. for children. [applause] ed: thank you. i don't think i would be doing another one of those. i am still feeling the effects. david: i would fly a marathon. i would fly 26 miles. [laughter] david: you have a pattern of meeting with employees regularly. you call it the velvet program. can you explain what that is? ed: yeah. so, when we went through our hard times back in the bankruptcy era, we did not have a lot of cash. people were taking pay cuts. we decided the only way we would ever be successful again -- delta has a proud history -- was
that we would have to reconnect with our people and get something to catch their attention. our people were downtrodden. years of pay cuts and job losses , and all the difficult things we remember from almost 20 years ago. so in downtown atlanta, there was an abandoned macy's building , and we decided to take out a couple of floors. i am not sure we ever even paid for it. i think we just squatted. i don't even know if they knew we were in there. we brought all our employees, 600 to 700 at a time for a day, a day and half, an opportunity to talk about the airline. we had no powerpoints, no slides. we deliberately kept it from being as uncorporate as possible. we had couches, chairs, curtains, we had low lights as people were walking in. people would come into the room and see people dancing around. no wonder we were bankrupt -- they probably thought. we have a crisis on our hands and these people are dancing in
this abandoned macy's building. what a date is it got their attention to focus on what was important. our people wanted to know it wasn't their fault that we went through the hard times. i think so often, when companies go through difficult times, employees are made to feel they are the reason. that they are too expensive, not productive enough. cost, when ita really they are the very best asset you have. and we do these meetings to this day. we can afford to actually pay for our own space and do hotel lobbies and other venues, but we have a dozen of them a year all around the u.s. where we bring people of different disciplines together and we talk about the future. and i still lead every one of those, as i did 15 years ago , because that engagement is so critical in what we do. david: how do you grow the value of your airline? you just make it more profitable by flying more miles, more acquisitions? anything left to buy in this business? ed: the airlines are thought to be a mature industry. there is not new places in the
u.s. left to fly to. we are building bigger airports, bigger airplanes, but not new destinations. so global expansion is important to us. we are doing that through our partnerships and delta flying many parts of the world. first of all, i think more are more aware of the world than ever before. people want to travel. they want to experience. and again, interesting, because we are living in probably as divisive a time as we can recall for many years. you would think this would hurt airline travel, but technology and social media and instagram, people want to go and explore and see for themselves something they may have read about. now they feel that is affordable. opportunities not only for the millennials and young generation that want to experience, but also baby boomers and others. david: i would focus on the baby boomers bucket list because they are going to have to do those sooner than the millennials bucket list, right? [laughter] ed: we are investing in both. david: suppose the president of united states said i watch this
interview, you are an impressive person. you've done a great job, why do you come in government and help us in some way? what would you say? ed: i am happy to advise, but i i am not sure i am -- i got my work cut out for me. david: suppose i'm a young graduate or a young business school graduate, why should i want to work at an airline like delta? what is the advantage? ed: free travel. [laughter] everybody likes free travel for not only themselves but their partner. if you love people, you are out in the public eye every single day. we do not have desk jobs. our desk job's in the sky. every day, your work environment is different. you have different people coming through and you have to adapt. you think about why people travel. people travel for all reasons. for happy reasons, sad reasons, for business, for pleasure, to go explore, to meet their grandchild for the first time, and there is all this emotion in roughly 200 people
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♪ caroline: the challenges of 2020, what are you prioritizing? what is front of mind for you? sheryl: well, definitely the biggest one is the election. we think the 2020 election is a massive test for us, and it should be. you know, elections have changed. we have changed as a company. if you look back to 2016, of course we were prepared for state actors. but what they really did was hack in and take information. this new, more insidious stuff, we were totally unprepared. we never thought of it. we missed it. everyone missed it. that is different now. now, we really work hard to find what we think of as coorde