The Entrepreneur Podcast
The Entrepreneur Podcast

Episode · 2 years 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.

You're listening to the Ivy Entrepreneurship podcastfrom the Pierrol Morrisset Institute Prom Entrepreneurship at the Ibbey business school. My nameis Eric Morris and I will be your host for this episode. Don Bellis one of the founders of West Jet Airlines. He is widely respected asthe owner of culture at West jet, which still remains one of the company'skey strategic advantages in the space. In this episode, Down Discusses The foundingof West jet and the importance of culture in the workplace. Donna, wasjust hoping thanks so much for being here first off, and I was hopingyou could just tell us a little bit about your startup story. You knowwhat, when did you decide that you were going to start your own airlineand and what were maybe some of the things going on at that time theythat led you to that decision? Well, I think the basis for it wouldcome from my love for aviation. I learned to fly when I wasabout sixteen seventeen years old, got my license really early on and had myown airplane where I board the money from my dad when I was like twentyor twenty one years old, and it was a taildragger called a Satabria,which is aerobatic spelt backwards, and I just I couldn't get enough time inthis guy and I love flying and I went on to start a computer businessin my early S and we grew that business throw western Canada and I hada couple airplanes that I used to fly around into my customers with, andso I got to mix my love with aviation into my business and and useit as a as a business tool, which was really kind of cool.And I was in the computer business when computers didn't work very well, socustomer service was extremely important to write, building relationships with customers, and soI think those things kind of collided with a couple of my buddies, initiallyMark Hill and Tim Morgan, and I tim had a piloting background and markhad a actually a real estate background, but he has quite a intensive personwhen it came to data and and he...

...kind of fell in love with thelow cost airline model and we started exploring the idea of starting an airline.That was that was really the genesis. I like to say that I gotto merge what I knew with what I loved and yeah, and get involvedwith the startup a business that allowed me to collide those two things. Yeah, interesting, and so some some different people with different skill sets and,you know, just kind of finding way to pool those interests into starting anew business. Exactly. And when you when you started to take these stepstowards starting an airline, because it's, you know, not something that happensevery day. You think. It's startups. It's a tough one. Where doyou think the confidence came from to start an airline? And you know, what were the first couple steps you took? Well, we we studiedsome other airlines out there. There was obviously southwest airlines, which became probablyour biggest go to airline in terms of one that we wanted to to emulate, but there was a lot of people that were callum derivatives of southwest,the copycats that were around at that time. I think there's one called mark areand then there was value jet and there was Morris are, and there'sa bunch of people that were taking the southwest model. And this was beforebefore Ryan Air as we know it today, and easy jet. They hadn't evenbeen started yet. So there's a bunch of people bunch of companies thatwere taking the southwest model and modifying it as a low cost carrier and andthat's kind of what we tapped into. Yeah, so once we studied thatmodel and became really familiar with it, we knew that there was a hugehole in the Canadian market, for they had the two incumbents of the time, Air Canada and Canadian, and they were right, right, very largeand very lethargic and very unionized and multiple...

...aircraft types and lots of employees andnot much productivity. So there was definitely a very huge hole in the marketthat we knew we could we could fill. It wasn't so much stealing from them, it was more stealing from the car and the bus and the trainand stimulate or what we'd like to call the Walmartization of the business right it. So that was the that's where we the ideas, I guess, originallycame from southwest with their single airplane, no meals, no interline, singlesingle class of seats, very simple business model that point to point flights only. Very simple business model that was easy to emulate. So we understood themodel and we understood how it made sense and right we were completely captivated byit and became consumed by it and and we are also extremely naive, sowe didn't know any better. One of the other things I think, andI don't know if this was, you know, purposeful or not, wasaround the culture side. It was fun. I mean getting on a West chatflight, like getting on a southwest flight, was very different than anybodyelse and in the industry at the time. Yeah, I mean you guys hadfun, the pilots, the the flight attendants, anybody you encountered seemedlike they were having fun. was that it had to be purposeful. Itwas very purposeful. Again, that was a lot of that came from southwest. Southwest was a very fun airline and when you look at people that arein, you know, rather mundane jobs or repetitive jobs, whether you're acall center agent or a Cusa customer service agent and an airport or a flightattendant or even a mechanic, and if you can inject some some personality inthe organization and that manifests itself through fun, it's certainly adds a levity that andbuilds an a spreed to core. That is. That is it's palpable. It's just it what ended up happening was we we created this environment,we hired the right people. The Environment...

Self perpetuated because people were attracted tothat environment and by the time I retired we were getting around thirty five hundredor four thousand unsolicited resumes every month. Well, and probably most of themwere people that like to the culture. So so we had this huge baseof people that would apply to work there because of the cultures that so itended up self perpetuating and all we had to do is feel it and keepit going. So that was the fun part. was was a huge partof its success. We also you make that sound easy to do. DonI don't think. I know. There's a lot more to it that youwere chief operating officer, and some people would say, you know, maybethat and the fun culture. A couple of examples. The we learned thatif you have fun during a safety announcement, their retention goes up like eighty percent. Wow. So if it's just the boring, you know stuff,well, number one and most importantly, it's no fun for the flight attendantto deliver a, you know, a boring message. You know a thousandtimes right. That never it's completely uninspiring and no fun. So the flightattendants that would could inject humor would actually have contest with each other to seewho could be the funniest. And that's fun. That it is. Soit so it added a component to their job that took it from the UltraUber Mundane to something that they could really play with, a fun yeah,we also changed a lot of the labels. That I think a lot of thelabels was one of the things that I did right away was we calledour passengers packs or Pax was the three letter acronym for Passenger. And theywere they became these inanimate objects. How many racks around Argos right? Howmany packs are connecting from that flight in the packs? And Eleven. Eightwants a glass of water, and so we change it to guess. Thatwas a bit of a was a bit of an eye opener for the peoplethat we hired from the industry and and...

...because it's much easier to take careof a guest than it is a packs. And it had. That had afundamental shift in the way that we thought about our customers. And Yeah, and that also helped to perpetuate the amazing how much language matters. Itreally is. Yeah, well, I've had the privilege of working with youon some other boards and some other things and I know that cultures not somethingyou take ily that you you you preach it in the other work that youdo and you've seen benefit and, I think, several different companies over theyears. Are there a couple of things that you would, you know,say these were kind of key to us, or some hints you might give youknow, some of the listeners in terms of building their own culture?What were some of the things that you looked for that you've, you know, really touchdowns for you? I think the biggest one would be hiring theright people. We used to have a mantra hire for attitude and train forskills. Yeah, except for the pilots, but if you'd have someone that getsout of bed in the morning with a with a good attitude, it'smuch more fun to work with somebody that absolutely as a bad attitudes. Thatwas really important to us. And then we, and I think this iswhat a lot of people don't get, we we built the organization around thepeople and we let the people decide what kind of an organization they wanted tobuild, because we were growing too fast to dictate it right. So wesaid, well, you know, the people told us we want. Theywanted fun, and the people told us they wanted agility and the people toldus that they wanted a levity in the work environment that they hadn't had before. And if you're to say to someone, what type of environment do you wantto build, it's going to make it fun to come to work andyour your tendency to build that environment would be much better and much easier itwould be. You're going to do it. Yeah, so wouldn't it be morefun, as a flight attendant, for example, to have fun doinga safety announce and as opposed to, you know, not have any fun? Or we encouraged everybody to cross seat belts and pick up the garbage outof the seatbacks, whether you were working...

...on the flight or you were youwere an employee that was traveling on a pass, and we save some moneydoing that. But it also built that a spree to core and the crimelottery and and people liked it. Yeah, you know, it's better than thecaptain sit in the front and the flight attendant would actually go to adifferent hotel and you know, there's just no, no camaraderie built. Soin terms of building a culture, it's really paying attention to the little thingsand understanding what gets people out of bed in the morning. MMM, andat the end of the day you want people to go home and put theirhead on the pillow and say, I had a great day. Yeah,I was given the tools to do my job properly. I was empowered todo the things I needed to do to get things done. I was giventhe environment to be successful and and you just have to pay a lot ofattention to that part of the business and I know you're eating a environment thatpeople are going to like. Yeah, and I know your big believer incelebrating the winds and making sure people understand and are able to celebrate when thingsgo well and when they really job is done. All really important. Yeah, fantastic, I know. Before I go on, kind of one lastquestion. It's amazing to travel with you because how long have you been awayfrom West End Now? Eleven years. Eleven years, everybody still knows youwhat Canto an airport done. You know, it's amazed like more with warmed emyears than when I worked. I think it's I think it's pretty special. I think it's really nate. But I I like that because when mykids fly with me, you know, they're given flight attendance or give mehigh fives and hugs. That's amazing. My kids get to see that.That's pretty special. I think it's a real testament to to what you meantto the to the growth of that company, around the growth, it was pickedup on something you said, around the culture and you know it wasthe the pilots and crew and if there was somebody just jumping, they wereall cleaning the plane, because when you grow that fast it's not just theculture. So some process, the systems that you have to put in placealong the way, but you know, they were all culture tied into theculture really well. It was. It...

...was part of an overall system,you know. Can you tell me anything more about that or was that again? Well, it goes back to creating the environment that we wanted and oneof the things that we we did was aligned the interest of the people withthe interest of the company. So one way to put that is the moresuccessful the company, the more successful the people. So they were all owners. That was a bigger part of her. They were all owners as and althoughmoney wasn't a big part of their motivation. It was just being ableto come to work with a if you ask people at Wesch at what's themost what's the most important aspect of working here, they'd say fun. It'sjust it's fun to work. Their way down on the list would be money. MMM. And you know, being a shareholder was important because if theywere able to impact profitability in any way, they could see it through a profitsure check. Yeah, and you know, we spend a lot oftime trying to educate them on how the business worked and and what it meantto save money. And you know, grooming the aircraft was a great example. We literally spent or saved millions of dollars every year by doing the grooming. So yeah, there was a lot of things like that that we wetried to focus on. There was a big focus on them days. Andthe call center, because call centers are pretty boring. Sure, we didn'tcall it a call center. It was a sale supercenter. Oh yeah,it had super agents. Were not a separation. It was kind of funnywhen people would call in they be put on hold and the cold message wouldsay one of our super agents will be right with you. Yeah, whenthey got connected, sometimes the guest would Sarah. You was super agent.It's hard. It's hard to be allowsy. WHAT'S SO Super Age? Sure,sure, all right. Last question. If you if you think back,somebody's growing a business, you know what would be a hint that you'dgive them or something that they need to really think about, is they theylook to grow their business? You got to love people. I'd say that'sprobably the biggest thing. Yeah, find the right ones and you really carefor him and it really got to care...

...for people. Yeah, fantastic.Well, Don thanks so much. It's really great. It really appreciate youbeing with us today and look forward to union future. Yeah, my pleasure. And that was don bell, one of the founders of West Jet Airlines. I wanted to briefly revisit a couple of points from that interview, mostlyaround the idea of culture. Culture is one of the toughest things to getright when you're starting an organization and one of the hardest things to maintain asyou grow. Remember, you get kind of one chance to do this.It's really hard to change culture later on, so let's get it right at thebeginning. The first point that dawn made was higher right. Very,very critical attitude is so important. People are going to bring that attitude towork every day. You need to think through how is that going to engagewith customers or disengage with customers to keep those great people that you bring onboard it. You need to think through a people for his organization. Howdo I make sure that my people are engaged, that they're excited to getup in the morning and come to work and that when they go home theyfeel like, you know what, I accomplish something today. To do thatyou have to pay attention to the little things and I think don covered thatreally well. Lastly, you want to cement that culture and that means celebratingthe winds, you know, giving credit to to those who deserve it andmaking sure you distribute that around the organization, you know, and Don's last pointwas, let's make 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 great ways to maintainthat. Great lessons from Don. I really thank him for his interview.You've been listening to the Ivy Entrepreneur podcast. To ensure that you never miss anepisode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player or visit IVdot ce, a forward slash entrepreneurship. Thank you so much for listening.Until next time,.

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