01 Oct 1999
Eight Among Many: Alfred A. Checchi
Public and Private Impactby Garry EmmonsTopics:
Al Checchi's record of achievement - particularly his turnaround of Northwest Airlines - is usually attributed to his brilliance and financial acumen. Often overlooked is how family heritage and twists of fate have played a role in his life, inspiring him "to do things that have an impact," as Checchi puts it.
"My grandparents symbolize what America is all about," says Checchi proudly, describing how his Italian immigrant forebears, from their corner store in rural Maine, first put the family on the path to self-betterment through hard work, sacrifice, and a belief in the elevating power of education. In turn, as a college graduate who became a federal government employee and a consultant in Washington, Checchi's father set an example that helped pave the way for young Al to win a private school scholarship, which led to Amherst and then HBS.
"Part of an Italian upbringing," Checchi explains, "is the understanding that each generation must make things better for the next." For Checchi, making things better has extended beyond the well-being of his immediate family to society at large, including a 1998 bid for the governorship of California. Checchi, who as a college student had already survived a serious auto accident, became convinced he should run for office after Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and a number of executives died in a plane crash in Croatia in 1996, a flight Checchi missed only because of a sched-uling change. "I felt that I was alive for a reason," he recalls, "and I had always intended to go into public service. In fact, I enrolled at HBS to learn leadership skills to that end."
Although his gubernatorial campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, Checchi was able to raise issues he feels are critically important to America: improved education, rich-poor disparity, and the need for government to modernize itself and not impede the business process. "As a society, we recognize that the private sector is our most dynamic, innovative, and capable institution," Checchi asserts. "To continue to enjoy that status, however, the private sector must meet people's needs."
Checchi cites his experience with struggling Northwest Airlines, which he and business partner Gary Wilson purchased in 1989, as the equal of any public-sector challenge. With multiple public and private constituencies, extreme financial pressures, and the jobs of fifty thousand employees on the line, Checchi had to somehow revive the company amid an industry-wide slump that saw six other airlines go bankrupt. Under his leadership, Northwest eventually did roar back to strength and profitability. "To lead our employees," Checchi says, "we had to give them a sense of community and context, and that meant telling the truth about how serious the situation was. People respond to that."
Currently, Checchi, still a major Northwest shareholder (he resigned from the company for his political run), is busy with private investments, philanthropy, and exploring options to lead national initiatives related to education and politics. "There are many forces to tap," Checchi says with a smile. "You don't have to be a governor to have an impact."