When WestJet launched its first flight 15 years ago, it was given little chance of success. Yet today, the Calgary-based business is one of the most successful airlines in North America, with 94 planes flying to 65 destinations in a dozen countries.
On Friday, Don Bell — one of the four men who founded WestJet — offered some insights into how the company survived in an industry that’s claimed about 75 other Canadian airlines over the years. Speaking at a Festival of Trees business luncheon, the former executive vice-president of WestJet described how he and Clive Beddoe, Mark Hill and Tim Morgan decided in 1995 to launch the upstart airline.
They looked to Herb Kelleher, CEO and co-founder of the successful Southwest Airlines, for direction.
“He told us, ‘It’s simple, just take care of your people and they’ll really take care of your customers.’
“It almost sounded too easy.”
The advice became the cornerstone of WestJet’s corporate philosophy. Staff receive a share of the profits to ensure their interests align with their employers’, said Bell.
“I think that program has paid out around $185 million.”
WestJet also strives to maintain a fun atmosphere, he said.
“We use any excuse for a celebration,” confirmed Bell, citing WestJet’s regular “profit-sharing parties” as an example.
He noted the most common question posed to WestJet on its website has been, “How do you make your people look like they’re enjoying their jobs.”
Prospective employees are carefully screened for their customer-service aptitude.
“That became our whole hiring philosophy, was hire for attitude, train for skills,” said Bell, adding with a laugh, “Except, of course, for pilots.”
WestJet also empowers its staff to address the concerns of customers. Often, said Bell, this results in better solutions than supervisors might have produced.
The company also dispensed with many of the buzzwords common in the industry and businesses generally. Passengers are guests, employees are people, and policies are promises.
Bell related how he and his partners struggled to raise $8.5 million in seed capital, and then bought older planes that had been retired from Canadian Airlines’ fleet. Things were going well until, about seven months in, a crash involving an American discount airline prompted Transport Canada to demand that WestJet change its maintenance procedures.
That forced a shutdown of flights and a belief by many that WestJet had joined the graveyard of failed airlines. But two weeks later, the company relaunched its business with $49 flights to all of its destinations.
That prompted about 50,000 calls, said Bell, and WestJet never looked back.