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Behind the Scenes of Continental's Remarkable Comeback
By Gordon Bethune with Scott Huler
Wiley 294 pp $24.95

With the recent retirement of American Airlines (AMR) CEO Robert L. Crandall, the airline industry lost its most colorful, combative, and quotable leader. But in Gordon Bethune's new book, From Worst to First, the chief of Continental Airlines Inc. (CAI.B) gamely tries to fill the gap.

Although Bethune, with co-author Scott Huler, promises a ''behind-the-scenes'' view of Continental's comeback since 1994, the book mostly covers well-trodden ground--but with a blunt, often profane brand of humor. Anyone familiar with Bethune's leadership of twice-bankrupt Continental will probably recognize such stock lines as ''you can make a pizza so cheap nobody wants to eat it'' (a reference to Continental's failed obsession with cost-cutting) and ''the sickest patients need the best doctors'' (to justify rising executive pay when Continental is at death's door).

But Bethune includes some fresh examples of his plain-spoken management style. For instance, when told by his operations people that they simply can't meet a deadline for repainting 200 planes, Bethune retorts: ''You're wonderful people and I love you, but you're going to get those airplanes painted or I'm going to shoot every last one of you.'' The workers make the deadline. Bethune, a former Boeing Co. executive, later explains that he has only twice in his career suggested shooting employees.

Simplicity and consistency have always been among Bethune's strengths in running the airline. But those qualities can make for tedious reading as he repeatedly explains the cornerstones of Continental's turnaround plan--from the way it measures and rewards on-time performance to how it communicates with employees. Bethune bolsters his points with a plethora of sports and airline analogies that quickly grow tiresome.

Still, in an age where managing seems increasingly complicated, some of Bethune's prescriptions are refreshingly straightforward. In stressing the importance of working together and making the workplace happier, Bethune explains how: ''Simple. You act nice. And you insist that everybody act nicer. Whenever possible, you react to their understandable hesitance with more niceness. It all sounds almost silly, but the fact is that the only way to change a corporate culture is to just change it.''

In one of the book's few behind-the-scenes passages, Bethune explains how he was almost passed over for the CEO job after the ouster of his predecessor. Continental's board decided not to name anyone as CEO for a time and to keep Bethune as president. When Bethune protested vehemently and got his chance to address the directors, he bluntly told them: ''This place is going nowhere fast, and in about two weeks, it's going to come apart at the seams. You can pick me--you may not think I'm the guy, but I am the guy. But if not, you'd better pick somebody else fast.'' With this book, Bethune seems intent on proving to the world that he's still the guy.



PHOTO: Cover, ``From Worst to First''

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Updated July 9, 1998 by bwwebmaster
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