Between The Lines

The stories behind this issue’s stories.

To Help Ensure An On-Time Departure…

Getting a new airline off the ground can be full of turbulence. Doing it from within the confines of Delta Air Lines might be even harder. That’s the reason why the launch team at Song, Delta’s new low-fare division, was careful to pick the fights that were crucial for them to win — and leave the others for another day (” Song’s Startup Flight Plan ,” page 98).


Crafting a separate, spunky look and feel for Song was important, as was the technology for selling tickets over the phone and delivering video-on-demand to its passengers. Picking a new vendor lineup was not as important — especially since Song didn’t want complex negotiations to delay its launch.

” We can’t afford the time it takes to do a new RFP [request for proposal] on everything we want to buy,” says David Pittman, Song’s CFO. So instead of auditioning new companies to provide in-flight food and beverages, for example, Song decided to stick with Gate Gourmet, which serves Delta. ” Too many people at Delta think they have a stake in that RFP, and they would slow it down,” Pittman says. ” Do I want the best price on everything? Yeah, but next year. We can afford trial and error on some things if it means one less battle with Delta. The need for speed trumps everything right now.” Scott Kirsner

Before Gold Is Sold

Our appetite for gold has created an astonishing world of ingenuity and harshness — one that I experienced as I reported on Anglo American’s fight against AIDS in South Africa (” One Man’s Drive. One Company’s Courage. One Decision That May Change the World,” page 114).

At the bottom of Anglo Gold’s Mponeng mine, I was more than two miles below the earth’s surface. Mponeng has been in operation since 1986. Underground, there are 236 miles of spacious and well-equipped tunnels. (New York’s subway system is 230 miles.) As the miners dig, they lay railroad track, string electrical power lines, and install pipes to supply fresh air and water.

Before going down, miners put on special underwear, coveralls, and boots and strap on an emergency breathing device. Underground, it’s hot. To cool the mines, Mponeng uses six ice machines, each the size of a small factory, to send 3,000 pounds of ice per minute into the mine.

Mponeng is considered a productive, lucrative mine. Not that there’s any gold lying around. At Mponeng, every 7,000 pounds of ore blasted out produces a single ounce of gold. In other words, a pile of rock that weighs the same as a Toyota Highlander SUV yields only enough gold to make wedding bands for one bride and one groom. Charles Fishman


Mr. Fix-It

For Alec Gores, founder of Gores Technology Group, bad news is good business. His firm buys troubled companies and turns them around. His toughest assignment? Buying out the Learning Company, as described in this month’s Fast Talk section (” My Toughest Assignment,” page 57).

Gores insists that the magic of his deals has less to do with numbers than with culture. ” A lot of people focus on the P& Ls and forget about customers, employees, and the culture,” he says. ” We help people be more nimble. We give them ownership and make them feel like it’s their company.”

A case in point: the acquisition of VeriFone, a once-maverick operation profiled in the premier issue of Fast Company . After being acquired by Hewlett-Packard, decision making at VeriFone slowed down, and the company became less responsive, Gores says. ” Once we took over, we let people make decisions on their own.”

Gores has employed that same principle in the roughly 40 companies that he has acquired. ” For the past 20 years, I’ve done the same thing,” he says. ” We’ve just made it bigger and better.” Christine Canabou