“The business of business is people” is the mantra of Herb Kelleher, co-founder of the nation’s largest domestic airline service, Southwest Airlines. Known for its positive culture and emphasis on its employees, Southwest maintains its focus on the fun-loving “business of people” in all departments — even in the professional environment of finance.

Laura Wright, senior vice president and CFO at Southwest, recently spoke with Mays Business School students about the leadership, culture and finance at Southwest, as well as how the company preserves its distinctive reputation.

“You must take time to celebrate and recognize employees if you want to keep them engaged and productive,” Laura Wright, senior vice president and CFO at Southwest Airlines, told students. (view more photos)

Wright holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting with a tax specialization from the University of North Texas. She started her career after college at Arthur Young & Company, where she worked with the (then) “little” company, Southwest Airlines, as one of her clients. Wright says that most of her career moves “came when [she] wasn’t looking for change,” and in 1988, Southwest approached her about working in its finance department. Attracted to the company’s culture, Wright joined Southwest, and recently celebrated 24 years working at the company.

According to Wright, Southwest has been a “tremendous growth story during her tenure.” She attributes its quick, exponential success to the company’s simple strategy: “Stimulate markets and create demand.” Southwest currently flies 698 airplanes, and with the recent AirTran merger, the company will soon expand into new markets and airports.

It also has a New York Stock Exchange ticker symbol of “LUV” that it adopted in 1977, after starting service from Love Field in Dallas in 1971.

With the rapid growth of Southwest, Wright says the common question around the office in the past few decades has been, “How do we maintain the culture of Southwest?” She revealed that the company annually evaluates its leadership based on the “Southwest Way” categories: a “warrior spirit” (innovative, determination, courage), a “servant’s heart” (considerate, living by the golden rule), and a “fun-LUVing attitude” (fun, interactive, positive). In addition, Southwest maintains its culture by hiring a specialized department of “culture keepers,” who coordinate events (such as “Finance Olympics”) and birthday cards for all employees.

“You must take time to celebrate and recognize employees if you want to keep them engaged and productive,” says Wright.

Southwest is renowned for its emphasis on employees equal to its emphasis on stakeholders. Wright says the phrase often used to describe the company is that it is a “customer service organization that happens to fly airplanes.” She says, “Happy employees means happy customers, which means happy shareholders.”

Working at Southwest isn’t all fun and games, though, Wright says. Leading the finance department, she makes tough decisions in response to economy downturns, rising costs of fuel prices and company merger issues.

“The first thing I do in the morning is turn on CNBC to see gas prices,” Wright laughs. During the recent financial crisis and sharp rise of fuel prices, many airline companies cut costs by downsizing its workforce. Southwest didn’t lay off any of its workers. Wright says this was because the company “hedged costs well.”

“It’s small things like using ground power instead of fuel to cool the plane while not in the air and adding winglets to the tips of wings that help us cut costs and keep prices low,” the CFO says.

Wright also spoke with the business students about the key attributes needed for financial leadership. Characteristics such as being quick-learning, hard-working, good instincts, ability to understand both sides and driven were all on the list.

Referring to what it takes for a successful career, Wright left the students with simple advice: “You have to want it.”