Southwest executive breaks barriers

Thursday, June 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Thirteen years ago, Ellen Torbert worked nights and weekends as a Southwest Airlines reservations agent, never dreaming of one day getting into top management at the low-fare carrier.

"I just wanted to have a job and support my family," she said.

The hard work - and long nights - paid off.

On May 23, Ms. Torbert, 42, made Southwest history when she became the first person of color to be named a vice president at the 29-year-old Dallas-based airline.

She now oversees 6,000 Southwest employees at 10 locations around the country as vice president of reservations.

With her promotion, Ms. Torbert joins a small group of ethnic minorities in the upper echelons of management at the nation's major airlines.

Today, 18 people of color hold positions at the level of vice president or higher at the country's top five carriers, a list that doesn't include Southwest.

There are three at United Airlines Inc., including president Rono Dutta; two at Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc.; four at Delta Air Lines Inc.; five at Northwest Airlines Inc.; and four at Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc.

When it comes to diversity in upper management, airlines rank in the middle of the pack when compared with other industries, according to government data compiled by Edith Updike, associate director of the Institute for Corporate Diversity.

"The more macho an industry was to start with, the lower its rate of hiring minorities," Ms. Updike said.

For Ms. Torbert, breaking the color barrier in corporate America wasn't easy.

As a young graduate armed with a degree in manufacturing administration from Western Michigan University, she encountered plenty of rejection when applying for jobs after she moved to Dallas with her husband in the early 1980s.

"The reception was really not very good," she recalled. "I came across as a black female from the North."

Ms. Torbert worked at a Dillard's department store in Plano, then as a supervisor for quality assurance at a company that manufactured voting cards. Later, while working as an assistant manager at a Cosmopolitan Lady health club, she met some Southwest flight attendants who told her about the airline.

In 1987, Ms. Torbert interviewed for a position as a reservations agent and received a job offer the same day. She quickly became a supervisor, then a manager of reservations training. In September 1993, she became director of reservations training, the position she held until May.

Along the way, colleagues told Ms. Torbert she would never become head of Southwest's reservations department because she was a minority. She also heard that it would take 15 years working in reservations before she could move into top management.

To increase her chances for advancement, Ms. Torbert interviewed for jobs in Southwest's customer relations and revenue management departments but failed to get the positions. Nevertheless, she stayed at Southwest, turning down frequent offers from headhunters promising more money and a senior management position.

Earlier this year, Carolyn Bates, Southwest's then-vice president of reservations, announced that she would step down to take early retirement.

Ms. Torbert wasn't sure she would be selected to fill the vacancy. After interviewing for the job, she told her husband, Walt, she didn't think she would get the position.

But then came the call of congratulations from Herb Kelleher, Southwest's chairman, chief executive and president, followed by flowers and notes of praise.

"You are setting the example. You are showing us it's possible," some colleagues wrote to Ms. Torbert.

"The more variety and diversity we can get, the stronger the group," she said.

"Customers need to see this company is acknowledging them as a customer, that we have people in this company that are like you."