We all remember the great Christmas movie classic "It's a Wonderful Life." The hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, stays home to save his family-run savings-and-loan institution, while his brother heads off to become a war hero.
Stewart's character, George Bailey, forsakes his own comfort and tries to find some for his depositors and his town. When a mix-up puts Bailey and his company in great peril, the townspeople rally around the selfless man and rescue him.
I'm happy to report that real George Baileys exist. At least one does. That's all the more gratifying because we live in a distinctly un-Bailey-like age of rampant cynicism and selfishness; a time when people have lost confidence in corporate leaders, and much else.
The true-life George Bailey among the nation's CEOs is a man named Gerald Grinstein.
Just a few years ago it looked like Delta Air Lines, one of the nation's largest commercial carriers, was headed for bankrupt extinction. A series of terrible corporate moves, coupled with the disastrous impact of 9/11 on the industry in general, resulted in financial hemorrhaging at Delta.
To add insult to injury, the company's top management used outrageously golden parachutes to bail out of the faltering corporate giant. Morale at Delta crashed. Customers wearied of the airline's struggles and stayed away more and more. Sure enough, Delta touched down into bankruptcy, as other famed commercial air carriers have in the past.
Enter Gerald Grinstein. His business experience included running another airline, Western, and also managing the company that created the nation's largest railroad. His experience was successful experience.
Grinstein arrived at Delta's corporate headquarters in Atlanta in January 2004. He walked through the door believing a man of his competence and dedication could save the company.
There were problems galore. Fuel prices were rising. Plus, an impending date of destiny with the pilots union loomed ominously. Beyond that, the company's organization wasn't. To use an onboard analogy, no one at Delta could find the exits, even when the "red lights led to white lights," as they say in the in-flight safety videos.
But Grinstein was undeterred. Combining high-end corporate savvy with low-key humility, he set about an examination of how to cut costs without alienating, and therefore forfeiting, Delta's hold on what had been one of commercial aviation's most loyal customer bases.
Next came negotiations with the unions. While some corporate CEOs refuse to meet in the middle, Grinstein conceded as much as possible without destroying the company, or putting it beyond the reach of recovery from bankruptcy.