The Entrepreneur Podcast
The Entrepreneur Podcast

Episode · 1 year ago

10. Founding of WestJet and the Importance of Culture in the Workplace w/ Don Bell

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Don Bell is one of founders of WestJet Airlines. He is widely respected as the owner of culture at WestJet, which still remains one of the company’s key strategic advantages in the space.

In this episode, Don discusses the founding of WestJet, and the importance of culture in the workplace.

He're listening to the ibion toErnershapod, cast from the prl Mor sed institute, Pronto Menership at the APVYbusiness goal. My name is Eric Morrs and I'll. Be Your host for this episode.Don Bell is one of the founders of west, Yad Airlines. He is widely respected asthe owner of culture it wes jet, which still remains one of the company's keystrategic advantages in the space. In this episode, Don Discusses Thefounding of Westyet and the importance of culture in the workplace. Dona wasjust hoping thanks, so much wor being air first off and I was hoping youcould just tell us a little bit about your startup story. You know, when didyou decide that you were going to start your own airline and and maybe some ofthe things going on at that time? Th that led you to that decision. Well, Ithink the the basis for it would come from my love for raviation. I learnedto fly when I was about sixteen seventeen years old got my licensereally early on and had my on airplane, where I borrowed the money for my dadwhen I was like twenty or twenty one years old, and it was a tail draggercalled US Cetabria, which is Arabatic spelt backwards and UH. I just I couldn't get enough time inthe sky, and I love flying and I went on to start a computer business in myearly twenties and we grew that business through western Canada and I had a couple of airplanes that I usedto fly around to my customers with, and so I got to mix my love with aviationinto my business and and use it as as a business tool which was really kindocool, and I was in the computer business m. When computers didn't workvery well. So customer service was extremely important, indbuildingrelationships with customers, and so I think, those things kind ofcollided with a couple of my buddies. Initially Mark Hill and Tim Morgan andI tim had a piling background in Marquett- a actually a real estatebackground. But he was going to...

...intensive person when it came to dataand and h he kind of fell in love with the locost airline model and and westarted exploring the idea of starting an airline that was, that was reallythe the genesis Um I' like to say that Igot to merge what I knew with what I loved and yeah and h Ge get involvedwith the start, with a business that that allowed me to collide those two things: YeahInteresting Andso, some some different people with different skill sets, andyou know, just kind of finding way to pool those interests intosstarting a new business exactly and when you, when you started to takethese steps towards starting an airline 'cause, it's you know not somethingthat happens everyday. You think it start. UPS T it it's a tough one. Wheredo you think the confidence came from to start an airline? And you know whatwere the first couple of steps you took? Well, we we studied some other airlinesout there. There was obviously southwest airlines, which becameprobably our biggest um go to airline in terms of one that wewanted to to emulate. But there was a lot of people that were call Hemderuvatives of southwest the the copycats that were around at that time.I think there was one called Mark Er and then there was a value jet andthere was Morris here, and there was a bunch of people that were taking thisouthwest model and this as before before ryonairs. We know it today, aneven yet they hadn't even been started. Yet so there's a bunch of people, abunch of companies that were taking the southwest model and modifying it as alow cost carrier and and that's Kindof what we tapped into yeah. So once westudied that model and became Yo kN really familiar with it, we knew thatthere was a a huge hole in the Canadian market, for they had the two incumbentsof the time: Er, Canad and Canadian, an they were Ni, very large and verylethargic, and very unionized, and...

...multiple aircraft types and lots ofemployees and not much productivities. There was definitely a a very huge hole in the market that we knew wecould. We could fill it, wasn't so much stealing from them. It was morestealing from the car and the bus and the train and stimulate or what we liketo call the Walmart Ization of the business. So that was the that's wherewe, the ideas, I guess originally came from from southwest with their singleairplane, no meals, no witerline single single class of seeds, very simple business model that pointto point flights, only very simple business model. It was easy o toemulate so e. We understood the model and we understood how it made sense andright. We were completely captivated by it and became consumed by it, and- andwe were also extremely naive- so we didn't know any better one of the other things. I think- and Idon't know if this was you know purposeful or not- was around theculture side, it was fun. I mean getting on a West Shet flight to likegetting on a southwest light was very different than anybody else in in theindustry. At the time I mean you guys had fun the Iglets, the flightattendants. You know anybody who encountered seemed like they werehaving fun was that it had to be purposeful. It was very purposefulagain that was a lot of that came from southwestsouthwest was a very fun airline and when you look at people that are in youknow, rather mundane jobs or repetitive jobs, whether you're a call center,Agen or C S, a a customer service, ageent at an airport or a flight attendegree, even a mechanic. If you can iject some some personality in theorganization and that manifects itself through fun it, it certainly had a Lebity that and build inAspredacor. That is that, is it's palpable? It's just what ended uphappening was we. We created this...

...environment, we hired the right people,the environment, self perpetuated, because people were attracted to thatin byoterm. By the time I retired we were getting around thirty five hundredor four thousand unsolicited resumes every month, and probably most of themwere people that liked the culture. So so we had this huge base of people thatwould apply to work there because of the culture I so it ended up selfperpetuating and all we had to do was feel it and keep it going. So that wasthe fun part was was a huge part of its success. We also umyou make that sound easy to Don. I don't Tik. I know there's a lot more toit, that you're, a chief operating officer and some people would say youknow. Maybe that and the final OCR t examples the we learned that if youhave fun during a safety announcement, their retention goes up like eightypercent, oh wel. So if it's just a boring on stuff, well number one and,most importantly, it's no fun for the flight attent to deliver. You know aboring message. You know a thousand times that never it's completely uninspiring D and nofun, so the flight attendants that would that could inject humor wouldactually have contests with each other to see who could be the funniest, andthat's t that ISO, it added component to their job that took it from theUltra Huber Mundane to to something that they could really play with andhave fun yeah. We also changed a lot of the labels th. I think a lot of thelabels T at was one of the things that I did right away was we called our passengers? Packs or Pax was the threeletter acronm for passenger and they were. They became these inanimateobjects. How many racks Ronoa is frat and how many packs are connecting thatflate in the packs and Elevana wants a glass of water, and so we changed it toguest, and it was a bit of a. It was a bit of an eyeopener for the people thatwe hired from the Industry D and 'cause...

...it's much easier to take care of aguest than it is Hax, and it ha that had a fundamental shift in the way thatwe thought about O r, our customers and yea, and that also helped to perpetuatethe amazing how much language matters oit really is yeah. Well, I I've hadthe the privilege of working with you on some other boards and some otherthings, and I know that culture's not something you take idly that you you.You preach it in the other works that you do and you've seen benefit and- andI think several different companies over the years are there a couple ofthings that you would you know say these were kind of key to us, or somehints you might give you know some of the listeners in terms of buildingtheir own culture. What were some of the things that you looked for that you?You know really touchdans for you. I think the biggest one would be hiringthe right people. We used to have a manter hire for attitude and train forskills yeah, except for the pilots. Butif. You have someone that gets out of bed in the morning with awith a good attitude, it's much more fun to work with somebody that absoatsa bad attitude that that was really important to us, and then we- and Ithink this is what a lot of people don't get. We we built the organizationaround the people and we let the people decide what kind of an organizationthey wanted to build because we were growing too fast to to dictate it RSO.He said. Well, you know the people told us we w they wanted fun and the peopletold us they wanted agility. The Pian told us that they wanted e levity inthe work environment that they hadn't had before and Ife to say to someonewhat type of environment do you want to build? It's going to make it fun tocome to work and your your tendency to build that environment would be muchbetter, much easier. It would be you're gong to do it yeah, so wouldn't it be more fun as a flightattendant, for example, to have fun doing a safety announceand asopposed to you know, not have any fun or we, we encouraged everybody to crossseat belts and pick up the garbage out...

...of the seatbacks whether you wereworking on the flate or you were. You were an employee that wastravelling on a passand. We saved some money doing that, but it also builtthat aspra a cor and the criotery and people liked it. You know it it'sbetter than you know the captains sitting the front and the flightertendet would actually go to a different hotel and N as just no no camaraderiebuilt. So in terms of building a culture, it'sreally paying attention to the little things D and understanding what getspeople out of bed in the morningmand. At the end of the day, you want peopleto go home and put their head on the pillow and say I hi had a great day. Iwas giving the tools to do my job properly. I was empowered to do thethings I needed to do to to get things done. I was giving the environment tobe successful and- and you just have to pay a lot of attention to to that partof the business I K. I know you're reatin environment, the people thay aregoing to like yeah and I know you're big believer in celebrating the thewinds and you know making sure people understand and and are able tocelebrate when when things go well and when Theyar really OAS done well reallyimportant, yeah fantastic, I know before I go on one last question: It'samazing to travel with you 'cause Ho. How long have you been away from Usonnow, W eleven years eleven years? Everybody still knows you lak into anairport don. You know it'Samait's, like ore arm er. How than when I worked. I think it's. I think it's prettyspecial. I think it's really nate, but I I like that 'cause. When my kids flywith me, you know they're Givin, plight attendants or give me high, fives andhugs. That's amazing, my kids get to see that that's pretty special. I thinkit's a real testament to to what you meant to to the growth of that companyaround the growth. It was picked up on something you said around the culture,and you know it was t the pilots and crew, and if there was somebody justjumping, they were all cleaning the plane, because when you grow that fast,it's not just the culture, it's o process, the systems that you have toput in place along the way. But you...

...know they were all culture tied intothe culture really well, it was. It was part of an overall system. You know,can you tell me anything more about that or it was that again? Well, itgoes back to creating the environment that we wanted and one of the thingsthat we we did was align the interest of thepeople with the interest of the companies. One Way to put that is themore successful the company, the more successful the peoples. They were allowners. That was, they were part of year. They were all owners at end.Although money wasn't a big part of their motivation, it was just beingable to come to work with it. If you ask people to Wesh o what what's themost, what's the most important aspect of working here, they they'd sayfun. It's just it's fun to work there way down on the list, would be money and you know, being a shareholder wasimportant, because if they were able to impact profitability in anyway, theycould see it through a profit Shar check, and you know we spent a lot oftime trying to educate them on how thebusiness worked and what it meant to to save money. And you know, grooming, theaircraft was a a great example. We literally spent or saved millions ofdollars every year by by doing the grooming so yeah. There was a a lot of things likethat that we that we tried to focus on. There is a a big focus on theme days in the Call Center 'causecall centers are pretty boring, we didn't call it a call Sair, it was asale, supercenter, oh yeah, and it had superagents were non separaton. It wasKINDOF funny when people would call in they'd be put on hold and the coldmessage would say: one of our superagents will be around with you y.Ah, when they got connected, sometimes the guest wouldsar, you asuperagent'hardit's hard to be a lousy t, so superage sure Sur, alliht. Lastquestion: If, if you think back somebody's growing a business, you knowwhat would be a hint that you'd give them or or something that they need toreally think about it. is they they look to grow their business? You gottaLove People, I'd say that's, probably the biggestthing yeah find the right ones and O don't really care for Hem, and I'vereally got to care for people so yeah,...

...fantastic. Well, Don' think so much.It's really great didn't really appreciate you being with Tus today,and I look forward to Te Union Future Weot my pleasure, and that was don bell,one of the founders of Westsagt Airlines. I wanted to briefly revisit acouple of points from that interview, mostly around the idea of culture.Culture is one of the toughest things to get right when you're starting anorganization and one of the hardest things to maintain. As you grow.Remember, you get kind of one chance to do this. It's really hard to changeculture later on TI. Let's get it right at the beginning. The first point thatDon mad was higher right. Very very critical attitude is so important.People are going to bring that attitude to work every day you need to thinkthrough. How was that going to engage with customers or disengaged withcustomers to keep those great people that you bring on board? You need tothink through a people forist organization. How do I make sure thatmy people are engaged that they're excited to get up in the morning andcome to work and T at when they go home? They feel, like you know what Iaccomplish something today to do, that. You have to pay attention to the littlethings and I think don covered that really well last. You want to cementthat culture, and that means celebrating the winds. You know givingcredit to to those who deserve it and and making sure you distribute thataround the organization. You know at Don's last point Wa. Let'smake sure that our people's interests are aligned with the company'sinterests. You know believing in a purpose believing in what we're tryingto do and then rewarding people as they achieve it are are great ways tomaintain that great lessons from Dan. I really thank him for his interview.You've been listening to the IVIONGMEN or potcast to ensure that you nevermiss an episode subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player orvisit IV dot ca forward, slash entmrenership. Thank you so much forlistening until next time.

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