Top New CEO of the Year: Gregg Saretsky, Westjet Airlines

The man who surpassed all expectations

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Gregg Saretsky (Photo: Ania and Tyler Stalman)

Gregg Saretsky (Photo: Ania and Tyler Stalman)

When he first became CEO of WestJet in April 2010, one of Gregg Saretsky’s first initiatives was to enter into code-sharing arrangements: strategic partnerships that would allow WestJet to sell seats on other airlines’ flights, as well as handle check-ins, issue boarding passes and seamlessly transfer passengers and luggage. It was a means for WestJet to elbow its way into some of Air Canada’s lucrative overseas business. As Saretsky recalls, the Street was very interested in what the value of those partnerships would be, so he gave them a number to chew on: $100 million in the first three years.

The result? “We completely blew everyone’s expectations out of the water, to the point where we don’t make that figure public anymore,” Saretsky says. He will admit that, on a typical day, somewhere between two and three thousand guests transfer onto WestJet flights from its eight code-share and 24 interline partners.

Much like this signature initiative, Saretsky himself has surpassed expectations since taking over the top job from founding CEO Clive Beddoe. The even keel of Saretsky’s voice and temperament convey a steady-as-she-goes hand on the helm, but his sharp features belie his competitive edge. Saretsky has consistently exploited every opportunity he’s found to WestJet’s advantage, and the market has taken notice: the company’s stock has doubled in value since he took the job, and now hovers in the range of $25 per share.

The airline is poised to keep growing. Its new regional carrier, Encore, began service this year with four Bombardier Q400 turboprops, and will add roughly one aircraft to its fleet every month through to 2015. And in September Saretsky made the biggest purchase in WestJet’s history: $6.3 billion for 65 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

Saretsky’s board of directors, needless to say, is thrilled. Perhaps more important, so are his employees, all of whom are owners. Though Saretsky had never worked in an employee-owned firm before, he understood the structure’s importance—and advantages—immediately. Before launching Encore he put the entire business plan to a vote of the company’s 9,000-plus employees, and got 91% support. “In an industry like this one, where competitors fly the same planes on the same routes at the same price points, you really are competing on culture,” he says. “This is a low-margin, capital-intense, tough business. And only an employee-ownership structure can truly provide the kind of service-oriented culture that can compete and win.”

6 comments on “Top New CEO of the Year: Gregg Saretsky, Westjet Airlines

  1. As they were are patting themselves on the back they neglected to take into account that under his stewardship he has taken a very engaged pilot workforce to an all time low in regards in working conditions and pay. We will see how that pays off in the future, oh but that’s ok cause he will have moved on. Ask anyone at Alaskan.

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    • Thinair; give your head a shake. You must be one of those unionized, self entitled pilots that have worked their entire life in an environment that see themselves as “GOD”. While I do not underestimate the effort and much challenging life style to get to where you are, please ensure you plant your feet on this great planet we call earth and give thank to those that came before you to ensure you could fly without wings. We have had pilots at WestJet with perhaps more qualifications than you in much higher roles in the executive environment that get it. (Disclaimer; not knowing you personally, this is only an assumption)
      I too have my commercial licence and know what it takes to get to where you are flying the big metal. I gave up building my time to ensure I was here for my wife, my daughter and my son. It is a choice you made and if you are like me, you made it because you love to fly and had that dream as a child that propelled (not pun intended) you to do so. When did you forget or ignore that passion??? Wait, it must have been when the douche bag union steward came through the door and told you are worth much more than that and don’t forget to pay your union dues. I can see that, simply by the words you used “under his stewardship” you my friend love the cloak and dagger approach to negotiations and us against them mentality, instead of trying a collaborative approach to solving the challenges and the realities of today’s world. Clearly something you have been exposed to in a message from your union representatives (if you can call them that). The article clearly states that Gregg has never worked for an employee owned (or ownership mentality) company, but he got. He understands what we are all about. I have had the opportunity to chat with Gregg on various occasions and see what he is about and what he stands for. He has passion. I am a 10 year proud owner of WestJet and feel insulted when someone in our industry feels so jaded about what they do and what they stand for. I know it is not easy but if you do not like what you do seek something else. Stop complaining or be someone that makes a difference.

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    • Oh, one more thing for Thinair. If and when Gregg moves on, which I am sure he will do at some point in his career, he is more than welcome to take his 3 or 4 million with him and the WestJet stock he has earned. He has certainly ensured that We(get it)stJet (probably not) owner filthy capitalists gained much from his leadership and our own self pride of doing what is right for our company.

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      • @westjetowner. I really enjoy the amount of assumptions you made on the OP. sure, it sounds like he/she has issues with Gregg, but you sure went to town on him with all your pseudo-philosophical junk on him. Sure you may be happy with your job, but that isn’t a ticket to make other people’s concerns less valid that yours. Just makes you come off elitist. Let’s be honest though, if you get insulted when ANYONE in your industry gets jaded. Then you’re fighting a losing battle my friend.

        The argument “If you don’t like what you do then do something else” is borderline offensive as it’s NEVER that simple. We get it that you have a raging hate on for unions, but you need to realize that they actually help some people. Stop being so close minded and next time try not to face roll the keyboard in rage when you read something you disagree with.

        I really am happy with this announcement; WestJet has quite the positive future ahead of them. Even with people like “westjetowner” in their ranks.

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        • pseudo-philosophical??? Nice. I think that 34 consecutive quarters of profitability with a healthy balance sheet , great reputation, smart people at the top making the right decisions and an engaged work force, allows someone to feel at least a little “elitist” as you put it. Especially in this industry. I also commented as westowner. I didn’t say I work for the company. It is after all a publicly traded company

          Reply

  2. Have used Westjet since its inception & particulary like their direct fllights from Kelowna to Mexico Toronto Calgay Vancouver & connections through Toronto Vancouver Calgary Edmonton to the West Indies makes it very convenient I have noticed their prices have increased & in many cases are equal or higher than Air Canada Their labour rates are lower & having one type of jet has certainly helped the bottom line & hope the Encore service will give good service to & from the smaller markets also be successful I only wish WJ would put a direct or a one stop to Honolulu for better convenience I am fortunate enough to vacation 2-3 times a year & WJ is my first choice unless AC has better schedules or equipment WJ employees always seem to be helpful & have a smile on their faces unlike the sour faces of many AC employees Hope WJ keeps up the great service & not become greedy by trying to expand too fast to other markets like so many have done in the past

    Reply

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