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Eric Epperson

Eric T. Epperson was vice president of corporate culture and communications for Pinnacle Airlines from 2010-2012. He is currently senior director of communications for Medtronic.

Trenary’s message: ‘I say you can either complain about it or you can make it better.’

By Updated: October 17, 2018 11:35 AM CT

“The job is basically getting 7,000 people to stop bickering and remember why they got into this business,” he said stoically before breaking into his trademark grin. “Should be pretty simple.” A recent acquisition and a second pending acquisition were about to triple the size of the “family” as Phil Trenary lovingly referred to his Pinnacle Airlines employees, and Phil understood his culture was falling behind. “We need to stop behaving like separate airlines and start acting like one.”

If hearing him refer to employees as family forces an eye roll, you can stop. This wasn’t a shallow Corporate gesture like Disney calling their employees cast members or Subway calling their employees sandwich artists. He honest-to-God, deep in his soul felt this way. “One thing you’ll find about airline people; even on our worst day we’re passionate about flying,” he said. “Our people love what they do. We just need to get back to doing it together.”

Phil was warm. He was candid. He was sincere. And he was well down the road of convincing me to leave a great job at FedEx and join him at Pinnacle. But before he closed the deal the conversation took an unexpected turn.

He started talking about the city of Memphis, the way Carol Brady might talk about Marcia. Rattling off historical facts about the Mississippi River that formed a sharp, sloping bend below the bluffs that became the foothold for our city’s growth. Spouting precise rail, road, river and air statistics fortifying Memphis’ role as the world’s cargo and logistics hub. Telling colorful stories about the world-famous musicians from every genre who recorded their top hits in our city’s legendary studios.

“Phil,” I interrupted. “I’ve lived here 20 years. You don’t need to sell me on the city.” He paused and smiled. “There are plenty of people who choose to dwell on everything they think is wrong about Memphis. I say you can either complain about it or you can make it better, and we have some great civic and business leaders who are working together to do just that. The progress is real whether you choose to see it or not.” Message delivered.

The more I got to know Phil, the more those themes repeated. Unity. Working together. Believing in something greater. Not just words to Phil Trenary. These were his values.

After the Mesaba Airlines acquisition closed, we adopted the theme “Stronger Together” to brand the journey of integrating the legacy Pinnacle, Colgan and Mesaba organizations. As a first step Phil and his leadership team spent months on the road visiting bases, ramps, maintenance hangars and operations centers; actively listening and skillfully engaging employees. Those days I saw a man in his natural element. Within one year a new agreement with the combined pilot unions would resolve a 5-year contract dispute. Revenue would top $1B for the first time as the airline took the number-2 spot among U.S. regional carriers. And Pinnacle would move its headquarters downtown to One Commerce Square. Downtown is always where Phil felt most at home, and where his story would end.

His death is shocking and senseless and all the other words people have come up with to try to put a handle on the news. But his death is NOT a referendum on Phil’s city. He spent much of his life trying to convert the non-believers, and I’m confident he wouldn’t bear to see his death become a big, fat “I told you so” for that sheltered and cynical crowd. Phil’s death is a call to action for every Memphian. The job is basically getting 700,000 people to stop bickering and remember the soul, the spirit and the hard-earned pride that makes this city a family.

Eric T. Epperson was vice president of corporate culture and communications for Pinnacle Airlines from 2010-2012. He is currently senior director of communications for Medtronic.



Topics

Phil Trenary Greater Memphis Chamber Pinnacle Airlines

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