At Canadian low-cost carrier WestJet’s offices near the Calgary International airport, airline staff work while facing floor-to-ceiling glass windows encasing the light-filled building. The window views, normally reserved for top executives in most corporate environments, belong to what WestJet chief executive Gregg Saretsky calls the “worker bees”.
WestJet’s offices were designed to ensure that: “WestJetters who are doing the real hard work have the best of the facility,” in Saretsky’s words. The chief executive’s office is inside the building overlooking the atrium, with none of the views that his staff can boast of. Neither does the head of an airline that employs 8,600 staff get a reserved parking space at the WestJet office. “If I come in late, I get the back lot... if it’s minus 40, I’m walking in,” he quips.
Saretsky attributes the airline’s culture as one of the factors behind its success. Only 16-years-old, the carrier has steadily grown its market share to 37% since it launched in 1996. It now operates to 81 destinations in North America and the Caribbean and expects to end 2012 with a fleet of 100 Boeing 737s.
The airline is also consistently profitable, posting a 65% growth in net profit in 2011 to C$149 million ($149 million).
Saretsky, who took over the helm at WestJet in April 2010, is embarking upon the next stage of the airline’s growth – a new regional carrier that will begin operations in 2013, with a fleet of Bombardier Q400 turboprops.
WestJet’s progress comes as its rival Air Canada continues to fumble in its attempt to launch a low-cost carrier, a plan that never got off the ground as the legacy airline grapples with tumultuous relations with its unions.
WestJet, on the other hand, won support from its non-unionised staff to launch the new regional carrier. More than 90% of its employees voted in favour of the new airline in February 2012.
Putting the regional airline plan to a vote among its staff was a move that raised eyebrows in the industry, says Saretsky. He recalls with a grin, “They said: ‘You are actually going to give your strategic plan to your employees and let them vote on whether it makes sense?’”
Odd as WestJet’s competitors might find the airline’s approach, Saretsky says engaging his staff is key to the carrier’s success. About 85% of WestJet’s employees own shares in the airline.
“If you have 85% of your employees who are owners, they care about the health of the business; they care about the guest service they provide,” says Saretsky. And having that backing in place would be crucial in WestJet’s endeavour to launch a new regional carrier, as it seeks to expand its presence in the region.