If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It’s a cardinal rule when it comes to running a business. Yet in his first year as WestJet’s president and CEO, Gregg Saretsky decided to break it – big time.
The company, he announced this past January, would explore the possibility of creating a regional short-haul carrier, one that would compete directly against Air Canada in some of Canada’s most under-served markets.
He understood that the move would be met with skepticism. “We’d said for 16 years that the success of our business model was a function of its simplicity: a single fleet of 737s, a single maintenance program and a single set of spares. And all of a sudden, we’re talking about a new airline that’s completely different.”
That’s why Saretsky left the final decision in the hands of the company’s 8,600-plus employees. He and his executive team – including all of the company’s vice-presidents – travelled across the country to meet with “WestJetters,” selling them on the plan in face-to-face interactions, small group sessions and a series of larger town hall forums. It worked. On February 8, 2012, the company announced that its plan had been endorsed by 92 per cent of its employees, a show of support that surprised even Saretsky. “I expected it to pass,” he says, “and if it didn’t pass we would be the reason it failed because we didn’t do a good job of explaining why this strategy was important to WestJet. But 92 per cent is resounding, in any kind of vote. It says we have incredible support from our employee-owners, who are ready to take the next step.”
If you only knew about Saretsky from a potted biography, you’d probably conclude he was destined to end up as the CEO of an airline. After all, both of his parents worked for airlines, his two brothers are pilots (one for Cathay Pacific and the other for Air Canada) and he married the daughter of a pilot. As former Canadian Airlines executive and longtime colleague and friend Jack Miles says, Saretsky has “jet fuel running through his veins.” But Saretsky’s bloodlines didn’t really kick in until he was in his mid-20s. “I wanted to be a doctor,” he says. “I did a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and microbiology at UBC, and the intention was to go on to medical school. It wasn’t until my graduating year that I realized I didn’t really want to do medicine.”
He enrolled in the University of British Columbia’s MBA program, thinking that he could combine his interest in science with a degree in business and work on the commercial side of the health-care field. All the while, though, he was spending his summers working in the airline business, first as a flight attendant for Air Canada and later as a customer service agent with Wardair. After graduating, he worked in banking for two years before realizing that his calling didn’t involve cashing cheques or helping people plan their financial futures. He quit his job at the Bank of Montreal and signed on with Canadian Airlines, and his career took off from there.What was the appeal of the airline industry? “It’s ever-changing, and it’s fast-paced,” he says. “The business has so many different facets. There’s a finance facet, a customer service facet, a production facet. It’s a whole bunch of businesses in one, and the opportunity to try your hand at every one of those things along the way is really attractive. You’ll never be bored, and every day is different.”
He knows what he’s talking about, too. In his decade-long stints at both Canadian and Alaska Airlines, Saretsky did everything short of flying the planes and unloading the baggage. At Canadian, he worked as a marketing manager in a variety of regions and departments before being promoted to the role of vice-president of airports, a position that saw him handle the operational management of Canadian’s 110 North American airports and the people that staffed them. After two years in that role, he was bumped up to vice-president of passenger marketing, where, among other things, he negotiated joint ventures with Qantas, Air New Zealand, and China Airlines in order to open up those growing markets.
He then jumped to upstart Alaska Airlines in 1998, where he spent almost a decade as the company’s executive vice president of marketing and planning. In that role he grew the company’s online sales from three per cent to 48 per cent of total sales, developed a network of code-sharing relationships that expanded the once-regional airline’s reach, and optimized the company’s flight schedule to the point where it led the industry in aircraft utilization.
But after almost two years as Alaska’s executive vice-president of flight and marketing, Saretsky decided to come home to Canada and an airline that bore a striking resemblance to Alaska. “I’d never flown WestJet and I’d never experienced it for myself,” he says, “but I heard these incredible stories about what a wonderful airline it was. And being in the industry I watched their financial results from a distance, and I was always amazed at this little airline that seemingly could do nothing but great things.”
Sarestsky joined WestJet in 2009 as the vice-president of WestJet Vacations, but Miles suspected that he was being groomed for something bigger. “I have a hunch that when they hired him as a vice-president, they were looking at him to see what he was made of and where else he could go,” Miles says. “He spoke to me before he went, and I said ‘Gregg, you’re not going to be in that position very long.’ ”
Sure enough, Saretsky was promoted to executive vice-president of operations of WestJet just four months later, although Miles confesses that even he didn’t expect Saretsky to rise to the very top quite so quickly. But in April 2010, less than a year after he joined the company, Saretsky was appointed as WestJet’s president and CEO. He replaced outgoing president and CEO Sean Durfy, who had held both positions since 2007. Saretsky knew he has some big shoes to fill. “Founders, they cast big shadows. Clive [Beddoe] and the team of founders did a wonderful job giving this airline a great start and getting it as far as they have.
It’s always hard to follow in the footsteps of a founder.”