In every success story there are turning points. For the CEO of Red Hat, Jim Whitehurst, one of them came when planes were crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11.On the morning of 9/11, Whitehurst thought he would be a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group forever. He met his wife there. He loved the work. He was happy, he told Business Insider.
But as the towers were falling down, he got a call from Leo Mullin, the CEO of one of his biggest clients, Delta Airlines. “Jim I need you now. I need you to be my treasurer,” Mullin said.
At first Whitehurst refused. “I told Leo I knew nothing about being a treasurer.” Whitehurst’s background was in computer science and economics topped off with a Harvard MBA. But Mullin pressed him. Delta didn’t need a bookkeeper. It needed a creative genius who could raise a LOT of money to pay immediate bills when “no one in their right mind would loan money to an airline,” recounts Whitehurst.
So at noon on 9/11, Whitehurst became acting treasurer and set about raising $1.25 billion while planes and passengers were stranded around the nation.
On 9/12, he got a call from the chairman of JP Morgan at the time, Bill Harrison, who promised Whitehurst that if he couldn’t raise the money, JP Morgan would front it all to Delta.
“$1.25 billion — that’s a lot of money when whole world falling apart,” remembers Whitehurst. “That left a soft spot in my heart for JP Morgan.”
He did raise the money and JP Morgan did not have to front all of it, he says.
Whitehurst stayed on as treasurer at Delta and, as a computer geek, spent his free time downloading information about the transportation network. Delta had a lousy on time record. He wanted to improve it. In 2004, a troubled Delta had itself a new CEO, Gerald Grinstein, who told Whitehurst “You’ve been complaining about the network so much, now it’s yours.”
Whitehurst was made COO and instantly went from running a team of about 100 people as treasurer to managing 85,000 employees. “I never had an operational job in my life. Now I’m running an airline.”
By 2005, it was clear Delta could not avoid bankruptcy. He spent three years restructuring the company, painfully laying off thousands of workers.
When the company emerged from bankruptcy, CEO Gerald Grinstein was also out and the Delta board hired Richard Anderson, a former Northwest Airlines executive as CEO. Whitehurst was out, too, though the upbeat Red Hat CEO clearly holds no hard feelings about the situation.
News circulated that Whitehurst was leaving Delta and Fortune published a profile on him, calling him “a familiar face to a lot of employees” and “architect of the airline’s turnaround.”
Matthew Szulik was looking to leave his role as CEO of Red Hat. Contrary to reports at the time, the hiring of Whitehurst was not a slap at Szulik. He read the Fortune article and was the one that called Whitehurst and interviewed him for the job, Whitehurst says.
Whitehurst was just starting to feel miserable over his job prospects when he got the call. He’d been on interviews, but didn’t want to take on another major turnaround.
But Red Hat was ideal.
“I’m still a techie geek and always was. When I was screwing around with all that network data back when I was treasurer at Delta, I was doing that in Linux. I knew Red Hat well as I’d been using Fedora which is Red Hat’s free distribution,” he remembers.
The Red Hat board loved him and he got the job in December, 2007.
“It was a confluence of things that happened. I had a degree in computer science but had drifted away and then the right opportunity at the right time came along, and here I am,” he laughs.
Turns out, it was a good move for all involved. His four-plus years at Red Hat have been impressive.
When he began, Red Hat was a $500 million company trading at about $20 a share. Now it’s on track to post over $1 billion when its fiscal year closes on February 29 and its stock trades at around $48. Red Hat has become a serious thorn in Microsoft’s side and has proven the open source model can be profitable. This has changed enterprise software forever.
And it all began during one of the nation’s darkest hours.
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