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Frank Borman: aviation's most daring executive.


Col. Frank Borman is smiling more these days. The American hero who charted his way around the moon and through ticker-tape parades back home has more recently run a gantlet of critics concerned he was gambling with the future of one of our nation's largest airlines.

But Borman, as chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Eastern Airlines, has stubbornly insisted that bold chances are sometimes needed in difficult times. So far, he's been right.

Despite corporate worries, Borman looks ten years younger than his actual age of 58. He stands 510 and weighs 168 pounds, the same he weighed as an active fighter pilot--a career nearly cut short by an error in judgment.

As a youngster in Gary, Indiana, Borman wanted two things: to fly and to attend West Point. He did both, but after graduation he caught a cold on his way to Korea; before it was cured, he made the mistake of flying a fighter jet. The result was a damaged eardrum. He was grounded.

While the ear healed, Borman earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. Later cleared for flight, he became a top-notch flight instructor. In 1962 he was selected as an astronaut; he served as the commander of the Gemini 7 mission in 1965; and three years later he accepted the role as the commander of Apollo 8.

Borman endeared himself to America during the 1968 Apollo 8 voyage. Most of us can recall that Christmas Eve when he, James Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to circle the moon, and the emotional stirring in our hearts when they gave the world their "Christmas present' --a reading of the story of the Creation from Genesis 1:1-10.

"Sy Bourgin of the State Department gave us the idea,' Borman says. "Six weeks before the flight we were told by Julian Sheer of NASA that we would "have a show' on Christmas Eve, and that we would speak to the largest audience in history. We decided that whatever we would say must be significant and reflect the spirit of America. Based on everyone's reaction, I guess we made a pretty good choice.

"Can you imagine,' Borman asks, "what the Russians would have said at a time like this? They probably would have bombarded us with a dose of party-written propaganda about Leninism or Communism. What we gave was a statement as to what America is all about. That's one of the reasons I feel lucky to be living in this country.'

Some say Frank Borman's life has been heaped to overflowing with luck. John "Shorty' Powers, the "voice of Mercury control,' realized, however, that Borman's success was due to something more. Powers once told a friend: "There was always one guy who you knew was nine steps ahead of the others, and that was Frank Borman.'

Borman retired from NASA in 1970 and joined Eastern as a consultant. The fee was minimal--about $5,000, as he recalls. At the same time, he served as the liaison man with the White House for the Apollo 11 mission--the first lunar landing. He even helped with the wording of the plaque placed on the moon.

In July 1970, President Nixon, through Bob Haldeman, offered Borman a job at the White House.

"What would I be doing?' Borman wanted to know.

"It would be a position of responsibility at the White House,' Haldeman assured him.

That was too vague an answer for Borman.

"It would involve input into policy,' Haldeman explained.

Still too vague, thought Borman. He politely refused. "Once I made up my mind, I had no regrets turning away from the prospect of becoming a White House official,' he says, "although I sincerely admired President Nixon.'

Borman's decision allowed him to accept an offer to be an Eastern Airlines vice president. "I wanted to sink my teeth into aviation, which I knew something about,' he says. "I considered a lot of offers, and some of them would have made me far better off financially. But when I got a chance to be an Eastern vice president, that was it. That's all I needed.'

During the next few years, Borman may have questioned the wisdom of his decision. In 1973, Eastern lost $51 million. Between 1960 and 1975, the airline, woefully top-heavy in management, lost $114 million all told. Something drastic had to be done.

Three directors of Eastern --Jim Elkins, Harper Woodward, and Roswell Gilpatric--met in marathon sessions for several days. Nearly exhausted, they left their meeting, visited the 47-year-old Borman in his modest office at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and quietly informed him that he had just been elected president of the airline.

"Thank you. I'll do my best,' the young executive answered. Within 12 months, he was named both president and chief executive officer. One year later, the title "Chairman of the Board' was added to his office door.

Borman now had all the authority he needed to move fast, and his earliest decisions jolted the company. He had to dismiss some key people as a way to balance the budget. The dismissals were conducted in what was to become known as the "Borman style'--face-to-face encounters in his office. Many of those whom Borman fired were friends and people he admired. "Letting those people go was my most difficult job in management,' Borman says, "but these moves had to be made for the sake of the company.'

A major reshuffling, salary cuts, and constant fine-tuning followed. Hardest hit was the number of vice-presidents, shaved from 69 to 38-- less than the number on carriers one-fourth the size of Eastern.

Borman also purged management of some of its prized fringe benefits, such as the use of executive limousines, private office showers, and a private jet. "Why do they need a private jet, when we have an entire fleet of commercial aircraft?' he asked.

During the next few years, Frank Borman sat alone in Eastern's hot seat. Every move he made, it seemed, was second-guessed, especially when the company failed to turn an instant profit. The Miami Herald observed: "The former Apollo astronaut's trip around the moon was a piece of cake compared to his corporate ride at Eastern.'

His daring decisions proved to be strokes of near genius for the most part. Some of the bold changes he engineered were:

1) Moving headquarters from New York to Miami--a decision which set the prophets of doom grumbling that the airline would surely be crippled. No such enterprise, they claimed, could possibly survive unless it were based in New York. Borman proved them wrong. Since the relocation south, expenses have been cut, and the all-too-familiar red ink on the books has slowly changed to black.

2) A voluntary wage freeze--which would have been cursed by the unions had Borman not told the employees the naked truth. "Without the freeze,' he said, "the company will go under. It's as simple as that.' The result was pronounced and positive. In 1976 Eastern showed a $39.1 million profit.

3) Aviation's first profit-sharing plan--when the employees were asked to take a 3.5 percent reduction in salary, to be invested in the airline. Skeptics said this could not be done. It was done, and Eastern realized a $67.3 million profit in 1978.

4) The "Executive Traveler' Plan--in which seasoned travelers (i.e., those who fly at least 50,000 miles per year) are afforded special accommodations when flying Eastern. Critics scoffed at an idea that would offer upgrading to first class on an available basis to select people. Today, however, thousands of these "executive travelers' go out of their way to fly Eastern for that very reason.

5) Expanding Eastern's routes-- allowing the airline to fly not only in the continental United States, but to South America and to Europe as well. Plans are now under way to include Japan as another of Eastern's destinations.

6) A wage-cut innovation in 1983 --that asked the 4,000 Eastern pilots to forgo 22 percent of their pay for one year; in addition, mechanics, ground crew, and flight attendants gave up 18 percent. In exchange, the employees were issued 12 million shares of common stock. The employees, then, bought 25 percent of the airline. This one cooperative venture between management and labor saved Eastern $275 million; it has been hailed as one of the most significant participation plans in aviation history.

Borman's budget-cutting was aided by his own unpretentious style. He drove to work in a seven-year-old Chevrolet convertible his father had bought from a Phoenix used-car lot. Before the Colonel (the title he still prefers) had it repainted, a fellow executive described it as "a souvenir from the Battle of the Bulge.'

Borman never asked others to do things he wouldn't do himself. Once he decided to expand the staff of volunteers (usually secretaries and office clerks) enlisted to help with the holiday traffic crush. "I expect you guys to get out there and help this year,' he announced unexpectedly at an executive briefing. "I'll be there myself. And I don't want any company photographers there. This is no publicity stunt.'

One Miami newspaper got wind of the plan and ran a story the next morning that the Colonel himself would be one of the volunteer baggage handlers. Within hours, television cameras and news reporters were on location to record the event. Borman wasn't pleased with this coverage, but he didn't fight it. Instead, he plugged away at the job for a full day--from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.--with not even a lunch break. He stopped only to sign an occasional autograph or, with all possible diplomacy, to refuse a tip.

Even his strongest doubters had to admit that the Colonel brought more than his clipped military style to the executive office. In one daring move after another, he guided the airline through deregulation that "caused an enormous amount of dislocation and gray hair,' he says. Even today, although Eastern is filling a hefty percentage of its seats, price wars threaten its financial future.

Economic turbulence notwithstanding, Laurance Rockefeller, a board member of Eastern since 1977, bluntly confessed: "I am convinced that Frank Borman was the only man in the United States who could have save Eastern from disaster.'

Borman refuses to take sole credit for keeping his company alive. "I am fortunate to have some outstanding people around me who have something to offer,' he says. Robert Shipner, senior vice president for flight operations, agrees: "The Colonel appreciates loyalty, but he has no respect for a "yes man.' Those closest to him are those who are not afraid to speak their minds.'

"I look at some European political systems with contempt,' Borman says. "Everyone is a domestic rabbit --kept in a cage, fed, and watered. I'd rather be a jack rabbit--taking my chances but enjoying some freedom, rather than be a part of a system that drives everyone to a single level of mediocrity. I'd hate to see that happen at Eastern or anywhere else in this country.'

What keeps Frank Borman going? "You've got to believe that what you are doing is worthwhile,' he says. Borman is also quick to credit his bride of 35 years, the former Susan Bugbee of Tucson, an attractive, unassuming woman: "I couldn't have done it without her support. Somehow, even during the most trying times, she pulls it all together.'

Frank Borman must leave Eastern eventually, but he does not seem to consider that alternative viable. Because of his warm personality, intelligence, integrity, and outstanding record as an astronaut and as a corporate executive, some even suggest he should seek a political future, perhaps as the 1988 Republican presidential nominee. Borman on Borman?--"I just want to stay here and give the airline my best shot for as long as possible. We've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go,' he says.

In the fall of 1985, Frank Borman turned over the reins as president and overseer of the day-to-day operations to Joseph B. Leonard, the first hint that he and Susan may be getting ready to smell the roses. The Colonel assures everyone, however, that this is just his way of preparing for the future. "I want to ensure a smooth transition in the event I do decide to move on,' he says.

In the meantime, if you happen to visit the main office, ninth floor, Building 16, Miami International Airport, at eight o'clock nearly any morning, you'll see Col. Frank Borman sitting behind his desk and planning more new ways to make his airline better.

He won't be hard to recognize. He's the one who's smilling.

Photo: Frank Borman turned down several lucrative offers, including one from the White House, because he wanted to "sink his teeth into aviation.' Eastern was a pretty big bite.

Photo: As an astronaut, Frank Borman commanded both Gemini 7 (1965) and Apollo 8 (1968), the first manned flight around the moon, with crew members James Lovell and Bill Anders.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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