CEO sweats the details at US Airways Top manager sets pace by leaving his mark

November 29, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ARLINGTON, Va. -- To appreciate the attention to detail of Rakesh Gangwal, who was recently promoted to chief executive of US Airways Group, consider this: While reviewing a training tape for flight attendants, he was dismayed to see the person portraying a business traveler lick her finger to turn a magazine page.

She was not trying to model behavior for the flight attendants. But no matter: Gangwal said it should have been caught and changed.

"The tape was about excellence, and we don't want to depict that image, even to ourselves," he said. "It slipped through the system."

It isn't just training videos he reviews. If there is any menu alteration, or any change in the script for flight attendant announcements, or any adjustment in the responsibilities of maintenance foremen, Gangwal wants to know about it.

Sweating the details has long been the hallmark of US Airways' chairman, Stephen M. Wolf, for whom Rakesh has worked at United Airlines, Air France and US Airways, where the two executives took charge early in 1996. So it is not surprising that Gangwal shares aspects of Wolf's management style.

But with the appointment of Gangwal as chief executive -- Wolf remains chairman -- Gangwal moves over to the captain's seat. His flight plan is ambitious: to expand the airline's route network and its fleet, and to improve its profitability and key measures of its service. He and Wolf have made quick progress on all of those fronts, including sharp improvements in on-time performance.

What intrigues many about Gangwal is his seemingly contradictory management style. It is top-down, in that he reviews decisions deep in the organization. But it is also bottom-up: He has established dozens of task forces, involving employees in addressing everything from inadvertent deployment of evacuation chutes to the launch of Metrojet, the low-cost operation based at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that US Airways established in an effort to better compete with Southwest Airlines and Delta Express.

"I love it when front-line employees come up with ideas, because I know they are the things that generally work," Gangwal said.

His style can be difficult for division heads to adjust to, he acknowledged, because they must be able to accept direction not only from Gangwal, but also from lower-level employees. Yet those executives are also expected to have strong ideas of their own and make things happen quickly.

Of the roughly 30 executives in jobs at the vice president level or above when Wolf and Gangwal arrived, about three-quarters have been replaced.

"I do impose my views in setting direction and in what we are trying to attain, but then I let the process take over," he said. "It's a very fine line."

A native of Calcutta, India, Gangwal came to the United States to get a master's degree in business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he helped pay his tuition by teaching mathematics and statistics.

When Wolf was recruited to USAir (he renamed it US Airways), he told the board he would not come without Gangwal.

Now Wolf is pulling back, confident that Gangwal is watching the details.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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