He didn't know Bethune, but his sales instincts kicked in.
"I thought, 'Man, I can sell a lot of legal services. You bet I want to meet your CEO.' What I hadn't counted on was that Gordon was a better salesman than I will ever be," Smisek said.
"And instead of me selling legal services to him, he sold me on quitting my cushy job and going to work for this broken, almost-bankrupt, near-death airline."
Smisek was hired as part of a turnaround team that transformed Continental from one of the worst airlines in the industry to one of the best. He climbed the ranks and became CEO in 2010, when Continental Airlines was the highest-ranked U.S. airline on Fortune magazine's annual list of World's Most Admired Companies. It was the ninth consecutive year Continental ranked on top.
"It was a spectacular opportunity for me, in retrospect," he said. "Being in the airline business is so much cooler than being a partner in a law firm."
Today, Smisek, 57, has an equally daunting task as CEO of United Continental Holdings, the world's largest airline and one of Chicago's largest private employers, with 14,000 workers. Slightly more than a year into the merger of United and Continental airlines, his focus is on integrating two behemoths with complementary businesses but radically different corporate cultures.
"Ultimately, we've got to merge the two cultures," Smisek said. "I think that will lead to the result we want, which is a profitable enterprise where our co-workers want to work here, our customers want to fly us and our investors want to invest in us. That's the goal. We can do that, but it's a long process bringing two companies together."
Man on the move
Smisek has been around airplanes all his life.
Born in Washington, Smisek was a self-described "Air Force brat," growing up on various military bases, including one in Germany. But he spent most of his school-age years in San Antonio. His father was a career military officer and B-29 bomber pilot in World War II. Perhaps Smisek's ease and entertaining style in talking to large audiences, in evidence at a keynote address this month at a meeting of The Executives' Club of Chicago, comes from a performer gene: His mother was a big-band singer.
Dealing with the family's frequent moves was good training for the constantly changing airline business, Smisek said.
After leaving home, Smisek earned an undergraduate degree in economics at Princeton University.
Then, his path was largely guided by love.
His girlfriend, Diana Strassmann — she's now his wife — was going to school at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He was working in New York for a firm that is now part of JPMorgan Chase. He couldn't afford to fly to visit her, and he grew weary of taking a train back and forth. So, he decided to join her at Harvard, earning a law degree and graduating among the top of his class, as he did at Princeton.
"That was the sole reason I went to law school, to be near my girlfriend," he said.
He worked for a law firm in Boston for a year while Strassmann finished a doctorate degree at Harvard. Then one day she called him and said, "Guess what? I've taken a job with Rice University in Houston, Texas." He laughs as he relays that she delivered the news as a done deal, without any input from him.
So, Smisek was on the move again. He found a job as a lawyer at a Houston law firm, where he worked for 12 years before succumbing to Bethune's offer to join Continental.