Lawrence H. Lee, the soft-spoken chairman who is credited with helping turn Western Airlines around amid the turbulence of deregulation, said Thursday that he plans to retire at the end of the year. Lee, who began his 42-year career with Los Angeles-based Western as a baggage handler, told stockholders at the company’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City that he will continue as chairman of its executive committee.
The 58-year-old Lee was named president and chief executive of Western in April, 1983, at a time of sliding morale and declining earnings; the airline was just reporting a $50-million quarterly loss. The company had been piloted for 16 months by Neil G. Bergt, whose confrontational style had helped stave off bankruptcy but displeased both management and unions at the airline.
Because the Western employees trusted him, analysts said, Lee was able to reach agreements with the unions on concessions that were needed to keep the carrier aloft.
After overseeing the restructuring of Western’s debt and establishing a hub in Los Angeles, Lee was elevated to chairman in January, 1984. He relinquished the chief executive’s post earlier this year to Gerald Grinstein, who, in turn, was succeeded as president by Robin H. H. Wilson.
The company closed 1984 with an operating profit of $11.4 million, its first full-year gain in five years.
“Larry Lee and the turnaround he designed for Western will become a model for American industry,” Grinstein said after the meeting. He added that Lee had intended to retire two years ago but “his loyalty to Western would not allow it.”