If John Edwardson would''ve been our CEO we wouldn''t be in this mess


Nov 26, 2002
Former United executive finds a happy landing
Barbara Rose
December 12, 2002
Missed opportunities aren''t worth crying over, but if you need reminding, think about John Edwardson.
He was in line for the top job at UAL Corp.''s United Airlines until union leaders forced him out four years ago.
Turns out, the airline suffered a lot more than did its ousted president.
While United flew straight toward financial disaster, Edwardson landed as chairman and chief executive of CDW Computer Centers in Vernon Hills.
The computer reseller has one-fourth United''s $16 billion in sales, a fraction of its employees--and a lot fewer problems. It''s on track to earn more than $43 million in the fourth quarter--nearly twice what United loses every day.
When the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday, Edwardson was at CDW headquarters, in a big open office with two pinball machines.
He was getting ready for a board meeting that he opened with a video CDW produced to woo vendors at a major trade show. It stars Edwardson and his team lip-synching to a joyful 1979 pop anthem by The Romantics.
Does he regret missing out at United? I feel like I''m the luckiest guy in the world.
To appreciate the irony of what United''s union leaders rejected, you need to meet Edwardson. The 53-year-old is an outgoing CEO with an egalitarian spirit. He eats with employees at CDW''s cafe, walks the sales floors and pops up in the warehouse at all hours.
Reporting to work at 6:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday for a big software conversion, his job was to bring doughnuts and stay off the computers.
At United, he routinely worked on Thanksgiving at jobs like cleaning toilets or handling baggage.
His modesty isn''t false. It''s the humility of a smart executive who senses the way to motivate employees is to be highly visible and show them you understand their sacrifices.
A less secure leader might have tried to put his stamp on CDW, a hard-charging firm with a unique culture built by founder Michael Krasny, CDW''s biggest shareholder.
Krasny has kept his promise to leave Edwardson alone--he''s not set foot at headquarters since the company lured Edwardson last year with a whopping pay and options package valued at $43 million.
For his part, Edwardson is tuning up CDW to become a much bigger company, but without killing off its youthful spirit. The highest praise comes from employees who say they haven''t noticed Krasny''s absence.
Some were disheartened by his leaving. Now, I don''t miss him a bit, says national sales vice president Oren Hartman. John is much more outgoing.
Edwardson''s pinball machines are an invitation for employees working late to drop in and play a game with him.
He shaved his head during a recent pep rally--a barbershop quartet was singing in the background--after employees won a bet with the CEO by exceeding third-quarter goals.
His high jinks would fall flat if it weren''t for his sincerity and the company''s financial success. Every employee gets stock options.
CDW isn''t immune from its industry''s deep slump. In fact, Edwardson revised the company''s fourth-quarter sales forecast downward Wednesday, though CDW is still on track for record quarterly sales and profits.
Unlike United, it''s growing profitably during the downturn.
Some airline experts believe Edwardson would have managed to keep the carrier out of bankruptcy. For sure, he never would have wasted money and time chasing an aborted merger and a business travel start-up.
That alone would have made the difference, says airline consultant Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group. You would have an airline focused on being an airline.
Edwardson, for one, has no regrets. He spends as many hours at CDW as he did at much bigger companies, but he''s got more energy. I look forward to every morning, he says. In the airline business, I felt I used every brain cell in my head every day.
I use fewer brain cells but I have more fun. As I''m getting older, fun is more important.
Sadly, it''s in short supply at United.
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Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
According to a United Airlines timeline, He resigned in September 18, 1998 due to lack of support from IAM and ALPA leaders for him to succeed Jerry Greenwald as chairman. Does anybody know why the IAM and ALPA did not support him?