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The Cocktail Napkin As Magna Carta.

In a recent profile of Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, CE noted that Texas businessman Rollin King and Kelleher drew up the business plan for the fledgling airline on "a cocktail napkin in a local bar." This morsel of anecdotal color indicates that the birth of Southwest Airlines was a bit unexpected, that in many ways it grew out of an informal conversation. But it also serves as an inspiration to entrepreneurs everywhere, by demonstrating that the course of a corporate empire can be mapped out without the assistance of lawyers, investment bankers, and even secretaries - that the whole kit and caboodle can be captured on a flimsy cocktail napkin.

Southwest Airlines is by no means the only company to ever come into being after a couple of highly ambitious men sat down for a few hours and doodled on a cocktail napkin. Throughout American history, numerous computer companies, trucking firms, and mass merchandisers have first seen the light of day as a series of cryptic etchings on a cocktail napkin, just as many companies were launched in a young entrepreneur's garage, basement, or attic. And now, in celebration of these mythical events, the American Corporate Hall of Fame, based in Toledo, OH, has mounted an exhibition at which the public for the first time will actually be able to see the famed cocktail napkins, matchbooks, and bar bills on which our great corporate institutions were conceived, as well as the garages, basements, and attics where our mightiest corporations first breathed life.

"In terms of the role they have played in shaping American civilization, these artifacts are every bit as important as Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball or the last basketball Michael Jordan ever shot," says Michael Bates, curator of the ACHF. "Just as baseball fans view Wrigley Field and Fenway Park as green cathedrals, corporate buffs view the dormitory room where Michael Dell started Dell Computers or the garage where Steve Jobs started Apple as shrines, temples, touchstones. Now we've got them all right here under one roof."

The exhibition is nothing if not comprehensive. In addition to the fully restored Dell dorm room and the Jobs garage, one can find the original apartment where Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield dreamed up their ice cream company. Exhibits going back a bit further include Andrew Carnegie's original den, Cornelius Vanderbilt's family room, the tool shed where Thomas Edison got the idea for the electric light bulb, and the tree house where an eight-year-old John D. Rockefeller cooked up Standard Oil. Impressive as these exhibits are, they do not generate the emotional impact of some of the smaller, more intimate memorabilia, such as the menu on which Thomas Watson devised the business plan for IBM or the "Buy Two, Get One Free" circular whose reverse side carries the business plan for General Motors. In fact, the most fascinating display is the room devoted to the role played by cocktail napkins in the rise of the free enterprise system.

"Usually when people hear the business plan for a blue-chip company was written on the back of a cocktail napkin, they think it's a cute anecdote dreamed up by a journalist," says Bates. "But in fact, we have 1,215 cocktail napkins on display here, and if you study them carefully, you can see that these are not generic doodles, not meaningless chicken scratches, but the actual business plans for each of the companies involved."

Still the question remains: Why would anyone draw up a business plan on a cocktail napkin rather than on an ordinary piece of stationery? "Well, think about why these guys were in the bar in the first place," says Bates. "The presence of the cocktail napkin shows that in most cases, these individuals had gone to the local bistro to knock back a couple of brewskies, not reconfigure the industrial landscape of America. So they didn't have any stationery with them. But over the years, the talismanic allure of the cocktail napkin has grown. Young Turks like to write their business plans on cocktail napkins because they figure, if it worked for Herb Kelleher, it might work for me. And often it has."

Bates points out that bars, lounges, and saloons all across the nation are highly cognizant of the role played by cocktail napkins in the irresistible rise of American capitalism and have responded accordingly. "Cocktail napkins used to be just large enough to cover a tiny tumbler and often had ribald jokes or puzzles printed on them," the curator notes. "But because of men like Herb Kelleher, manufacturers of cocktail napkins have gotten rid of most of the unnecessary graphics and verbiage, leaving as much space as possible for flow charts, graphs, and decision trees. For instance, cocktail napkins are twice as large as they were 25 years ago."

"The cocktail napkin industry is proud of the role it has played in shaping the industrial landscape of America," says Len Cavuto, chairman of the Great Lakes Cocktail Napkins Manufacturers Association. "By making available a tasteful literary appurtenance to the entrepreneurial community, we feel that we have contributed in no small measure to making the American dream come true. Remember that the next time you sop up a spilled Bud with our napkins. Yes, our products are absorbent. But they are so much more."

Just ask Herb Kelleher.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.
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Title Annotation:Southwest Airlines company history
Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Words:913
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