Donald C. Burr
Former Wall Street analyst of aviation stocks and former rescuer of a nose-diving Texas airline, founded People Express
In the spring of 1981 Donald Calvin Burr, former Wall Street analyst of aviation stocks and former rescuer of a nose-diving Texas airline, founded People Express with three used Boeing 737s purchased from Lufthansa. With 250 employees, over a half-billion dollars in assets it is the tenth busiest airline in the country, carrying nearly one million passengers per month. With the addition of several aircrafts scheduled for delivery next month, the airline will have 73 planes in use, and that, according to one source, is the fastest growth in aviation history.
As amazing as the process of growth of People’s is, it is the manner in which it was achieved. Don Burr leads a company that has no traditional supervisors, no secretaries and no organization charts. People employees belong to no union and are expected to perform a variety of tasks – it’s called “cross-utilization.”
Mr. Burr’s interest in aviation is inborn. As a child he was fascinated by airplanes, and he and his older brother often visited the airport just to watch the planes come and go. At Stanford University, however, he reluctantly shelved his hobby, deciding instead to major in English and go on to law school. By chance, a conversation with two visitors to Stanford, W. Peter Slusser, an investment banker, and Keith Funston, chief of the New York Stock Exchange, changed all of that. Both encouraged Burr to enter the world of business. Don Burr graduated with a major in economics, earned his private pilot’s license, received his MBA from Harvard, and joined the National Aviation Corporation, a small Wall Street securities firm. Eight years later, at 30 years of age, he was named president of the organization.
In 1973, Mr. Burr went to work for Texas International Airlines, a small regional carrier in Houston. In 1978, with Mr. Burr as chief operating officer, the airline had become profitable. He was named president but resigned six months later, stating that the company “had no vision, no excitement.”
The federal government deregulated the airline industry in 1978 and opened the door for Don Burr to start his own airline. People Express began business in the best location Burr could obtain – an unpropitious corner of Newark Airport’s north Terminal. Some experts believed that the location itself would kill the business before it got off the ground. But Burr persisted, aided by the ready supply of venture capital funds, the availability of cheap aircraft, and a large pool of experienced airline personnel who had been laid off by other airlines and were willing to accept lower, nonunion wages in return for a piece of the action. In 1981 People Express…took off!
Today, the successful People’s operates, as it did in its infancy, on the theory that people will work harder and have a better time at it if they are given four ingredients: a financial stake in the company; the opportunity to learn and hold a variety of jobs; and organizational structure that allows employees to make large and small decisions based upon a company philosophy and tradition; and a sense of belonging, not just to a company but to a family. It is a family that has been created by Donald Burr, and one of which he and its members are justifiably proud.