Strategy

Gen-X CEO leaves WestJest

Sean Durfy says he quit as head of WestJet to spend time with his family. For real.

When a CEO quits his job for “personal reasons,” it is usually dismissed as code for an ouster, or at least a sign that simmering differences with a company’s board, or perhaps controlling shareholders, have reached a boiling point. But when Sean Durfy announced his resignation from WestJet Airlines on March 15 — the Ides of March, no less — it appeared to be just that, a personal decision. Durfy explained with emotion the conflicts between this most demanding of jobs and coping with his wife’s health problems over the past four years. The decision to leave, he said, was “100%” his.

Could this be the corporate world’s initiation into the era of the Generation X chief executive, who works to live rather than lives to work? For past generations, sacrificing one’s family life was an expected consequence of climbing the corporate ladder. But Durfy, who leaves with noticeably more grey hairs on his 43-year-old head than when he started, could be a harbinger of senior executives to come.

Durfy had his share of headaches at WestJet, especially in the past 18 months. Though WestJet has been one of the most consistently profitable airlines in NorthAmerica, its share price today is virtually in the same spot it was a decade ago. Its transition from a point-to-point discount carrier in the mould of Southwest Airlines to a full-service national airline has not gone smoothly, and investors wonder where the earnings growth is going to come from. Moreover, the former darling of travellers and media — perennially looking good in comparison with archrival Air Canada — has come under unaccustomed public fire of late.

It adopted the Sabre reservation system after writing down its own proprietary system in 2007 at a cost of $31.9 million. But since the software’s rollout last fall, customers have been greeted with long lineups at check-in counters and equally long phone waits for customer service representatives. WestJet launched a loyalty program, another hallmark of the full-service business model, to mixed reviews in March, nine months late. Likewise its announced code-sharing agreements with Southwest and Air France-KLM have been delayed.

Unlike Durfy, who came to the company from Calgary electrical utility Enmax Corp., his successor Gregg Saretsky, 50, is a career aviation manager with long stints at Alaska and Canadian Airlines on his resume, suggesting WestJet intends to stay the course, only execute better.

After handing over the reins April 1, Durfy will remain on the WestJet payroll for another five months as an adviser. At the news conference to announce the transition, he revealed that he has no further plans other than to spend time with his family, noting that, “in my 15-year career being an executive, I’ve never had more than two weeks off.” Four years ago his wife, Tracy, was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and while she had apparently recovered, family acquaintances have let on she suffered seizures againlast fall. The couple also has young children.

David Aplin, whose Edmonton-based firm, David Aplin Recruiting, has done extensive polling of Generation X and Y employees across the country to determine their priorities, says business culture is changing, and he expects to see more top executives insist on placing family matters on the same level as their work. “I do believe that this might be the start of a wave where family matters at least as much as work. It’s been tilted the wrong way for a long time,” he says. As the job market returns from its recessionary funk, “we’re probably in for some learning by corporate Canada that things are different now.’