Here's to the Richest Man in Town

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.

He succeeded.

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.

To their tremendous credit, the airline’s pilots accepted major pay reductions and made other concessions. They are unlikely, perhaps uncredited, heroes in this story of corporate comeback.

In fact, everyone from the baggage handlers to the flight attendants deserves a medal of valor for the way they stuck with the company. It evoked memories of the old days, when Delta employees collected money enough to buy the airline another plane.

Now the kicker: As has been tradition when airlines emerge from bankruptcy, Delta’s management has received a handsome financial reward.

But not Grinstein. Instead of taking the money for himself, he is distributing post Chapter-11 payouts to — imagine this — the employees.

And for himself? Not a thing extra. He plans to retire back to his home out West, with nothing but the grateful appreciation of millions of travelers, investors and others.

Strictly speaking, he is taking something. Beyond his salary — modest by today’s standards — he’s also getting his share of the re-emergence cash.

But it won’t stay with him. Instead, Grinstein will donate every dime to bolster a fund to help Delta employees if and when their families face emergency situations.

Most of us know how "It’s a Wonderful Life" ends. So you’ll pardon me for this: "To Gerald Grinstein, the richest man in town" … and a breath of fresh air within the stuffy confines of corporate America.