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Company president is on Cloud 9

Cloud 9 Super Shuttle’s logo may look whimsical and not like an airport shuttle service, but that’s exactly what company President John Hawkins wants you to think.

Wearing a tie emblazoned with the Cloud 9 logo, Hawkins spoke to students at California State University, San Marcos on Wednesday, about branding, working hard and the characteristics of a good leader.

The Cloud 9 brand came after Hawkins was invited to revive the bankrupt San Diego Super Shuttle franchise in 1991.

Hawkins said the branding process was nonstop idea work with the management team and outside experts. The company emerged in 1994 on its feet financially and with a focus that followed the same idea of The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE DIS) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV).

Disney inspired Cloud 9 leaders to create a fun and attractive image. Southwest inspired the company to head for the skies and offer freedom.

Initially, Hawkins said he worried what he would tell his friends from business school when they saw the cartoon-ish logo. However, it only took days to embrace the image and the attitude to match.

“I’m on 'cloud 9' and you’re still working for a living,” he said.

The attitude of fun is what Cloud 9 executives feel puts them ahead of their competitors. The company sees it’s main competition as anyone who takes someone to the airport, which is mostly friends and family.

“It’s hard to beat out someone who is free,” Hawkins said.

The logo also appealed to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, which was promoting San Diego as a fun place to be at the time the Cloud 9 brand was launched.

As for other shuttle services, Hawkins said his company doesn’t “even play on the same team” because the services are in the transit business and Cloud 9 specializes in customer service. The company hopes the service element makes a client choose it, instead of asking a friend for a ride.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to love the customer more than their mom does, which is hard,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins worked in the financial sector after graduating with his master's degre in business administration at age 25. He left for the hospitality industry after 10 years -- first to Princess Cruises in 1985 and then to Cloud 9.

Hawkins told the students that hard work was important -- but not as important as taking risks, surrounding oneself with good people and learning how to be a good manager.

“What you learn is being really smart and working half as hard is sometimes only half of the equation,” he said.

But Hawkins said one could learn from poor management, too.

“My best boss never worked for a good manager, and he was terrific because he knew what not to do,” he added.

Just as his boss was a great example, Hawkins looks up to several local and national CEOs. He sits on the board of several businesses and nonprofits in San Diego. The self-proclaimed maverick said he holds those positions for the same reason he found success in business.

“They think left and I not only think right, but up and down,” he said.

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