Phil Bakes was many things, chief among them president of Eastern Airlines from 1986 to 1990 when it filed for bankruptcy, and president of Continental Airlines from 1984 to 1986, guiding the carrier through its successful Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.
A Harvard-trained attorney, he was a Watergate special prosecutor in the 1970s, general counsel to the Civil Aeronautics Board and counsel to the U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee. Currently, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winner, was president of Snapper Creek Equity Management, a private equity and advisory firm in Coral Gables.
But, above all, Bakes was passionate:
▪ About family. “He was a great dad and, with our age differences, we have two sets of kids,” said his widow, Jodie Bakes, who is 20 years his junior. At business school, Eastern was her case study and she ended up marrying its former president, she said with a chuckle.
The couple met in a gym in a Miami office building where both worked. She figured she’d go out for a simple dinner, “and it blossomed from there.” The two were married for 20 years, until his death on Aug. 3 at age 70 after a relapse of myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disorder that led to acute leukemia. “The kids from his previous marriage blended wonderfully as one family,” Jodie Bakes said from their South Miami home.
▪ About career. His résumé includes reversing Continental’s steep decline and overseeing its successful reorganization. In 1999, Bakes founded the Far & Wide Travel holding company that sold package vacations and acquired 21 tour operators in less than three years. A 2003 bankruptcy was forced, however, by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq and the SARS epidemic. The combined ripple effect stalled travel.
▪ About food, both eating and preparing — he loved to cook in his South Miami kitchen. Italian food. Steaks. Barbecue.
▪ About politics. He was deputy campaign manager for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s U.S. Democratic presidential campaign in 1979-’80. His daughter Tia is married to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
“One of his favorite things to do, whatever you were talking about, he’d love to take the opposite side — the constant devil’s advocate to make sure you were saying it from the heart; to see if there were holes he could poke in an argument,” she said. “He loved a good back and forth.”
▪ And, not least, about adventure. In the 1970s, during the construction of the Alaskan pipeline, Bakes converted a big yellow school bus into a camper and traversed the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness with his young family. Tia remembers how the bus constantly broke down in the most remote areas. Bakes would hitchhike to scrounge parts at junkyards so he could make repairs by hand.
Friends and family use the word “passionate” often to describe Bakes, who was born March 6, 1946, in Little Rock, Ark., and raised in Chicago.
He was so good at connecting people. … A fabulous networker. People would reach out to him for business deals and guidance.
Jodie Bakes on her husband Phil Bakes.
Cori Zywotow Rice, president of Miami’s Hill + Knowlton, details a friendship that began in the mid-1980s when she was head of communications for the City of Miami Police Department under former Chief Clarence Dickson. At the time, the department was battered by the Miami River Cops scandal.
Bakes had just guided Continental Airlines as its CEO through a successful Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding and was, as he said, “rewarded” with the Eastern job as its president after Texas Air purchased the carrier in 1986.
To reverse its image problems, the Miami P.D. invited community leaders on Friday nights to accompany its officers on reverse sting operations. Bakes, the adventurer, took part.
“I met Phil on one of those sting operations,” Zywotow Rice said. “He subsequently hired me to go to Eastern, so I worked for him and that leads to a quintessential Phil story.”
Eastern was facing several hundred million dollar losses, high labor costs, messy fights with its unions and a reputation for failures in dependable, on-time service. These were problems Eastern, a 60-year major employer in South Florida with 18,000 employees, could not transcend, Bakes wrote in one on his many letters to the Miami Herald’s editorial board.
His letters to the newspaper were forceful when his ire was raised. In an August 1988 missive, he opened, “It’s becoming cloudier than ever to envision a future for the Miami Herald.” Bakes perceived a Business Monday columnist’s tone as dismissive about Eastern. “Eastern’s commitment to South Florida is unwavering,” Bakes responded. (Eastern was reborn in Miami in 2015.)
In February 1991, almost a year after he resigned from his $325,000 job as Eastern’s president, he was reflective in a column he wrote for the Herald. “What I remember most are Eastern’s dedicated people. They persevered against all odds. Their spirit invigorated an old institution to be the best it ever was. We will miss the airline, but I take some comfort knowing its best people remain to bring their magic to other local institutions.”
Before the end, Eastern employees had to spend half a day cleaning its airplanes, “trying to keep everyone employed,” Zywotow Rice remembered, picking up on her Bakes story. She accepted a job at Burger King’s Miami headquarters and had to break the news.
“He screamed at me and thought I was disloyal and how could I leave him?” Zywotow Rice said, laughing. “This was such quintessential Phil. He had such passion and loyalty and just cared so much for people.”
The bond held. “Passionate, that is the best word for him,” she continued. “He had a joie de vivre and just attacked life with a vengeance in everything he did. We remained friends for decades. Love for his friendships and family was forever.”
Zywotow Rice found texts from Bakes on June 25. The couples — she and her husband, Doug, and Bakes and wife Jodie — were trying to sync their schedules to celebrate Doug’s birthday. Bakes was in Jupiter at one of his daughter Erin’s lacrosse games. He sent his friend an emoji of a big balding man jumping out of a birthday cake.
Bakes, in a pre-emoji world, did similar with eldest daughter Tia Diaz-Balart, whom he adopted when she was 13, seven years after marrying her mother, Priscilla Bakes.
Diaz-Balart suffered from a near fatal lung disease when she first met the man who would become, even after the divorce, “my best friend, my mentor and inspiration.” Bakes was the one who got out of bed in the middle of the night to administer her medicine when she was 6. Bakes helped her catch up on homework.
“Every day he would leave special notes of what I need to do for homework, what my chores were, and he would leave cute, little pictures. He’d draw pictures of the dog,” Diaz-Balart said.
“He was always the one to encourage me to come out of my shell,” she added. “He was such a bold Mr. Adventurer. He inspired me in never letting fears be an answer for not doing something.”
Bakes is survived by his wife Jodie Bakes; his children Tia Diaz-Balart, Justin, Kyle and Erin Bakes; grandchild Christian Diaz-Balart and his sister, Judy Peterson. A celebration of life will be 1-3 p.m. Aug. 13 at The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.