The Entrepreneur Podcast
The Entrepreneur Podcast

Episode · 3 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 podcast from the Pierrol Morrisset Institute Prom Entrepreneurship at the Ibbey business school. My name is Eric Morris and I will be your host for this episode. Don Bell is one of the founders of West Jet Airlines. He is widely respected as the owner of culture at West jet, which still remains one of the company's key strategic advantages in the space. In this episode, Down Discusses The founding of West jet and the importance of culture in the workplace. Donna, was just hoping thanks so much for being here first off, and I was hoping you could just tell us a little bit about your startup story. You know what, when did you decide that you were going to start your own airline and and what were maybe some of the things going on at that time they that led you to that decision? Well, I think the basis for it would come from my love for aviation. I learned to fly when I was about sixteen seventeen years old, got my license really early on and had my own airplane where I board the money from my dad when I was like twenty or 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 in this guy and I love flying and I went on to start a computer business in my early S and we grew that business throw western Canada and I had a couple airplanes that I used to fly around into my customers with, and so I got to mix my love with aviation into my business and and use it 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, so customer service was extremely important to write, building relationships with customers, and so I think those things kind of collided with a couple of my buddies, initially Mark Hill and Tim Morgan, and I tim had a piloting background and mark had a actually a real estate background, but he has quite a intensive person when it came to data and and he...

...kind of fell in love with the low 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 got to merge what I knew with what I loved and yeah, and get involved with 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 a new business. Exactly. And when you when you started to take these steps towards starting an airline, because it's, you know, not something that happens every day. You think. It's startups. It's a tough one. Where do you think the confidence came from to start an airline? And you know, what were the first couple steps you took? Well, we we studied some other airlines out there. There was obviously southwest airlines, which became probably our 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 are and then there was value jet and there was Morris are, and there's a bunch of people that were taking the southwest model. And this was before before Ryan Air as we know it today, and easy jet. They hadn't even been started yet. So there's a bunch of people bunch of companies that were taking the southwest model and modifying it as a low cost carrier and and that's kind of what we tapped into. Yeah, so once we studied that model and became really familiar with it, we knew that there was a huge hole in the Canadian market, for they had the two incumbents of the time, Air Canada and Canadian, and they were right, right, very large and very lethargic and very unionized and multiple...

...aircraft types and lots of employees and not much productivity. So there was definitely a very huge hole in the market that 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 train and 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, originally came from southwest with their single airplane, no meals, no interline, single single 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 the model and we understood how it made sense and right we were completely captivated by it and became consumed by it and and we are also extremely naive, so we didn't know any better. One of the other things I think, and I don't know if this was, you know, purposeful or not, was around the culture side. It was fun. I mean getting on a West chat flight, like getting on a southwest flight, was very different than anybody else and in the industry at the time. Yeah, I mean you guys had fun, the pilots, the the flight attendants, anybody you encountered seemed like they were having fun. was that it had to be purposeful. It was 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 are in, you know, rather mundane jobs or repetitive jobs, whether you're a call center agent or a Cusa customer service agent and an airport or a flight attendant or even a mechanic, and if you can inject some some personality in the organization and that manifests itself through fun, it's certainly adds a levity that and builds 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 to that environment and by the time I retired we were getting around thirty five hundred or four thousand unsolicited resumes every month. Well, and probably most of them were people that like to the culture. So so we had this huge base of people that would apply to work there because of the cultures that so it ended up self perpetuating and all we had to do is feel it and keep it going. So that was the fun part. was was a huge part of its success. We also you make that sound easy to do. Don I don't think. I know. There's a lot more to it that you were chief operating officer, and some people would say, you know, maybe that and the fun culture. A couple of examples. The we learned that if 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 attendant to deliver a, you know, a boring message. You know a thousand times right. That never it's completely uninspiring and no fun. So the flight attendants that would could inject humor would actually have contest with each other to see who could be the funniest. And that's fun. That it is. So it so it added a component to their job that took it from the Ultra Uber 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 the labels was one of the things that I did right away was we called our passengers packs or Pax was the three letter acronym for Passenger. And they were they became these inanimate objects. How many racks around Argos right? How many packs are connecting from that flight in the packs? And Eleven. Eight wants a glass of water, and so we change it to guess. That was a bit of a was a bit of an eye opener for the people that we hired from the industry and and...

...because it's much easier to take care of a guest than it is a packs. And it had. That had a fundamental shift in the way that we thought about our customers. And Yeah, and that also helped to perpetuate the amazing how much language matters. It really is. Yeah, well, I've had the privilege of working with you on some other boards and some other things and I know that cultures not something you take ily that you you you preach it in the other work that you do and you've seen benefit and, I think, several different companies over the years. 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 you know, 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 the right people. We used to have a mantra hire for attitude and train for skills. Yeah, except for the pilots, but if you'd have someone that gets out of bed in the morning with a with a good attitude, it's much more fun to work with somebody that absolutely as a bad attitudes. That was really important to us. And then we, and I think this is what a lot of people don't get, we we built the organization around the people and we let the people decide what kind of an organization they wanted to build, because we were growing too fast to dictate it right. So we said, well, you know, the people told us we want. They wanted fun, and the people told us they wanted agility and the people told us 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 want to build, it's going to make it fun to come to work and your your tendency to build that environment would be much better and much easier it would be. You're going to do it. Yeah, so wouldn't it be more fun, as a flight attendant, for example, to have fun doing a 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 out of the seatbacks, whether you were working...

...on the flight or you were you were an employee that was traveling on a pass, and we save some money doing that. But it also built that a spree to core and the crime lottery and and people liked it. Yeah, you know, it's better than the captain sit in the front and the flight attendant would actually go to a different hotel and you know, there's just no, no camaraderie built. So in terms of building a culture, it's really paying attention to the little things and understanding what gets people out of bed in the morning. MMM, and at the end of the day you want people to go home and put their head on the pillow and say, I had a great day. Yeah, I was given the tools to do my job properly. I was empowered to do the things I needed to do to get things done. I was given the environment to be successful and and you just have to pay a lot of attention to that part of the business and I know you're eating a environment that people are going to like. Yeah, and I know your big believer in celebrating the winds and making sure people understand and are able to celebrate when things go well and when they really job is done. All really important. Yeah, fantastic, I know. Before I go on, kind of one last question. It's amazing to travel with you because how long have you been away from West End Now? Eleven years. Eleven years, everybody still knows you what Canto an airport done. You know, it's amazed like more with warmed em years 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 my kids fly with me, you know, they're given flight attendance or give me high 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 meant to the to the growth of that company, around the growth, it was picked up on something you said, around the culture and you know it was the the pilots and crew and if there was somebody just jumping, they were all cleaning the plane, because when you grow that fast it's not just the culture. So some process, the systems that you have to put in place along the way, but you know, they were all culture tied into the culture 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 one of the things that we we did was aligned the interest of the people with the interest of the company. So one way to put that is the more successful 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 although money wasn't a big part of their motivation. It was just being able to come to work with a if you ask people at Wesch at what's the most what's the most important aspect of working here, they'd say fun. It's just 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 they were able to impact profitability in any way, they could see it through a profit sure check. Yeah, and you know, we spend a lot of time trying to educate them on how the business worked and and what it meant to 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 we tried to focus on. There was a big focus on them days. And the call center, because call centers are pretty boring. Sure, we didn't call it a call center. It was a sale supercenter. Oh yeah, it had super agents. Were not a separation. It was kind of funny when people would call in they be put on hold and the cold message would say one of our super agents will be right with you. Yeah, when they 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'd give them or something that they need to really think about, is they they look to grow their business? You got to love people. I'd say that's probably the biggest thing. Yeah, find the right ones and you really care for him and it really got to care...

...for people. Yeah, fantastic. Well, Don thanks so much. It's really great. It really appreciate you being 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, mostly around the idea of culture. Culture is one of the toughest things to get right when you're starting an organization 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 change culture later on, so let's get it right at the beginning. The first point that dawn made was higher right. Very, very critical attitude is so important. People are going to bring that attitude to work every day. You need to think through how is that going to engage with customers or disengage with customers to keep those great people that you bring on board it. You need to think through a people for his organization. How do I make sure that my people are engaged, that they're excited to get up in the morning and come to work and that when they go home they feel like, you know what, I accomplish something today. To do that you have to pay attention to the little things and I think don covered that really well. Lastly, you want to cement that culture and that means celebrating the winds, you know, giving credit to to those who deserve it and making sure you distribute that around the organization, you know, and Don's last point was, let's make sure that our people's interests are aligned with the company's interests. You know, believing in a purpose, believing in what we're trying to do and then rewarding people as they achieve it are great ways to maintain that. 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 an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player or visit IV dot ce, a forward slash entrepreneurship. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

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