United Airlines Chief Tried to Create a One-Stop Travel Shop

In the mid-1980s, Richard J. Ferris assembled what he hoped would be a one-stop shop…

In the mid-1980s,

Richard J. Ferris

assembled what he hoped would be a one-stop shop for travelers. As chief executive of the holding company for

United Airlines,

he led acquisitions of the Hertz car-rental business and the Hilton International hotel chain.

For a time, Hertz customers could check their luggage on a United flight while returning a rental car. Long before the internet made reservations simple, Mr. Ferris believed customers would reward a company that let them book a flight, a car and a room with one call.

Before he could give this strategy an extended test, however, investors grew impatient for more profits and the board rebelled. He resigned under pressure in June 1987.

Only 50 years old, Mr. Ferris had time for a second act. He and Peter Ueberroth, a former baseball commissioner, joined other investors in buying the Boston-based Guest Quarters hotel chain, later combined with the DoubleTree chain and others.

He also teamed up with Mr. Ueberroth, Arnold Palmer and Clint Eastwood in 1999 to line up investors and acquire Pebble Beach Co., the owner of an oceanside golf resort near Carmel, Calif., from Japanese investors for $820 million. Mr. Ferris served as co-chairman of Pebble Beach until the end of 2019.

The acquisition brought stable ownership to a property that had been bought and sold repeatedly and was deteriorating. “Our focus has been on the preservation of this natural treasure,” Mr. Ferris told The Wall Street Journal in 2019. Investing in Pebble Beach, he said, was “like putting your money in Fort Knox.” The cost of a round of golf there can be nearly $600.

Mr. Ferris died Jan. 16. He was 85 and had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

A few months before he lost his job as CEO, Mr. Ferris announced that United’s parent company was changing its name from UAL to Allegis to underline that it wasn’t just about air travel. Eleven months after he left the company, it changed the name back to UAL. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Ferris later conceded that Allegis “sounded like a bad cold.”

Richard Jesse Ferris, known as Dick, was born Aug. 31, 1936, in Sacramento, Calif. His father was a life insurance salesman.

While serving in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s, he managed a noncommissioned officer’s club in Tokyo, a job that sparked his interest in the hospitality business and led to his enrollment at Cornell University, where he graduated in 1962 with a degree in hotel management. He then  joined Western International Hotels, which sent him around the country to open and manage hotels. He met Mr. Ueberroth, who was also in the travel business, and became a top aide to Western’s chairman, Edward Carlson.

After UAL acquired Western in 1970, Mr. Ferris joined the airline company, took charge of food-service operations and then was promoted to group vice president of marketing services. “I don’t pretend to know marketing,” he said in a 1974 interview. “What I do pretend to know about is organization—to simplify what they’re trying to achieve without being bugged by preconceived notions.”

In 1979, he was named chief executive of UAL, succeeding Mr. Carlson. Though he was a strong proponent of airline deregulation in that era, the resulting price competition jolted UAL badly in the early 1980s.

Mr. Ferris acquired the Pacific division of Pan American World Airways. He also tried to get chummy with UAL pilots and even showed he had something in common with them by earning his own pilot’s license. But his insistence on a two-tier wage system, meaning lower pay for new hires, led to a strike in 1985 that left pilots bitter.

As pilots and activist investors fought for control of the newly renamed Allegis in 1987, Mr. Ferris arranged for an unusual aircraft-financing accord giving Boeing Co. $700 million of notes that could be converted into as much as 16% of Allegis’s common stock. The maneuver was expected to deter hostile takeovers but offended shareholders, who worried about dilution of their ownership.

The Allegis board turned against Mr. Ferris during a June 1987 meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York. He walked out. The company announced his resignation and soon began selling the hotel and rental car operations.

Suddenly unemployed, Mr. Ferris began investing in smaller ventures, including Applebee’s restaurants. “The neat thing,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1988, “is I don’t have to be there 18 hours a day, seven days a week.”

He served as a director of Procter & Gamble Co. and worked with the PGA Tour, an organization for pro golfers. Among other things, he was chairman of the organization’s policy board from 1993 to 2007.

Mr. Ferris is survived by his wife of 59 years, Kelsey Ferris, along with three sons and eight grandchildren.

By last April, Mr. Ferris’s disease had advanced to the point at which he could no longer speak or swallow. He still could hit a golf ball, however. With a friend, Sam Reeves, he entered the three-day Swallows tournament, an annual event at Pebble Beach. They won.

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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