The Richmond Register

October 24, 2013

Leadership skills learned at Eastern have taken Bornhorst high in the corporate ranks

By Bill Robinson
Register Editor

RICHMOND — When Don Bornhorst touches something, it may not turn to gold, but it seems to rise dramatically in value.

That was evident from remarks the Delta Air Lines senior vice president made Thursday when he addressed a group of local business and academic leaders as part of Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Business and Technology’s Distinguished Speaker series. The luncheon event was co-sponsored by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the Richmond Rotary Club.

Alchemy, however, has had nothing to do with Bornhorst’s success in the business world. He credits his rise through the corporate ranks to the skills, especially the leadership skills, he learned as an EKU student in the 1980s.

EKU was “just the right fit” for him, Bornhorst said, and he wouldn’t exchange his education with anyone.

Although he may not have realized it at the time, his EKU experience, both in and out of the classroom, was preparing him for the career he would follow.

He encouraged the students he spoke to earlier to “really experience college” and take advantage of every opportunity to learn, grow and lead. That is more important than which college a young person attends, he said.

In addition to every seat being filled, nearly 40 students stood to hear him speak, Bornhorst said.

He told the educators and business people at the luncheon not to underestimate young people’s hunger for information.

After graduating from EKU in 1987, Bornhorst joined a national accounting firm and was assigned as an auditor for Delta Air Lines affiliate Comair, based in northern Kentucky where he grew up.

About 14 years later, he went to work for Comair, rising through the ranks to become its president.

When Comair was sold to Delta, the stock that Bornhost’s father bought for $800 when his son was a high school student, had risen in value to $18,000.

For the past six years, Bornhorst has been president of the Delta Connection based in Minneapolis, Minn.

After years of struggles and huge losses, the airline industry, especially Delta, has turned around, Bornhorst said.

Delta has risen from a $10 billion loss in 2002 to an expected profit of about $2 billion this year and $1.2 billion in 2012.

The airline, with $20 billion in assets, has reduced its debt to below $10 billion, and its stock has risen by 163 percent.

Part of its new-found profitability can be attributed to its purchase of a Pennsylvania oil refinery, which assures reasonable fuel prices, Bornhorst said.

Other airlines have talked about purchasing their own refineries, but only Delta has done it.

More important to Delta’s recent success, Bornhorst said, has been the “servant leadership” culture introduced by Delta’s president, Richard Anderson. He called servant leadership a combination of “passion, drive and humility” that is stressed throughout the company.

Because the airline industry is on the upswing and a generation of pilots is about to retire, Bornhorst said he expects Delta to hire about 600 pilots a year for the next decade. Other airlines will be hiring, too, he said.

He commended EKU’s FAA-accredited baccalaureate aviation program, one of only six in the country. The program is well known and highly regarded in the industry, Bornhorst said.

Delta hires only college graduates as pilots, and Bornhorst said he advised EKU’s aviation students to get their degrees, work five or six years for a regional carrier and then choose to work for Delta, even if they have offers from other airlines.

Fortune magazine recently rated Delta as “a great place to work,” which Bornhorst said also reflects its servant leadership culture.

Bill Robinson can be reached at editor@richmondregister.com or at 624-6690.