Work-life: Former WestJet CEO Sean Durfy's big decision

Unlike most CEOs, when Sean Durfy said he was stepping down to 'spend more time with family,' he meant it.

As CEO of WestJet, Sean Durfy was widely respected for leading the Calgary-based airline’s aggressive expansion. After he took over from company co-founder Clive Beddoe in 2007, the company grew rapidly into a $2-billion carrier, offering more than 50 destinations in Canada, the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. During his tenure, the low-cost airline established a vacations business in the southern States, put in a new reservations system, developed a new rewards program and formed strategic partnerships with airlines such as an Air France and KLM. In 2009, Durfy earned $2.1 million, and his star-bound career trajectory meant he could expect even fatter paycheques. At the time, he thought he was better than most corporate leaders at balancing his work life with family responsibilities. He had lost weight to take care of himself. He preached to employees about maintaining a sustainable work-home life balance. Early last year, Durfy looked at his own work-life scales and saw a huge problem. After some serious soul searching, he rocked the industry by unexpectedly quitting to spend time with his family. People questioned whether Durfy was really leaving for personal reasons. But it was true. The 44-year-old former CEO recently talked to Canadian Business senior writer Thomas Watson about his new life as a stay-at-home dad.

Canadian Business: When people ask you about leaving WestJet for family reasons, do they still go: “Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink?”
Sean Durfy: Yeah, everyone always thinks there is another story. It’s just one of those things. I’ve had so many reporters want to write about, you know, what happened. I just say, “Google my name and you can see exactly what I’ve done at WestJet.” I had a great run. I loved it. I am proud of it. I simply made a decision to stop being a CEO, and I don’t regret it for a minute.

CB: Can you explain?
SD: About six years ago, my wife had a cavernous hemangioma, a brain tumour. After the hemangioma was removed, she had an embolism which was pretty problematic. Then a couple of years ago she had what is called grand mal seizures, some brain activity that wasn’t quite right. Today, she’s in perfect health, fantastic, no drugs, but it took time to get over those seizures. And these events made it tough to perform day-to-day activities. We also had a couple of problems with our kids as they were first starting off with life. These things start you thinking about being lucky, especially when you’re travelling all the time, working all the time, always thinking about work. I realized quality time with my family was not there. My young fellah didn’t really even know who I was. I stepped back and said, “All this stuff is not good. This is not a good place to be.”

CB: Were other factors in play?
SD: Yes. Working in the tough, demanding airline sector played a role. You’ve got a five-year life expectancy, and it is all-encompassing. And prior to WestJet, I was president of Enmax Energy, working to bring deregulation of electricity into Alberta. I had a tough 12-year run without a lot of, you know, breathing time and space. I just said, “It’s time to shut it down.”

CB: Where were you when you made the decision?
SD: We were at the Olympics. Tracy had just got a clean bill of health for the first time from the doctors. My daughter, Kennedy, was seven. My son, Reilly, was three. And I realized it was time to slow down and start thinking about what’s really important to us.

CB: Was there any pressure from your family?
SD: No. Never. My family has always been a support system. Tracy has never complained. She is an amazing lady with amazing strength. I’ve learned so much from her, more than I ever learned about character, integrity, all that good stuff, on a job or in a company or from anybody else. But I think we are getting to a point where she goes, “Jesus, get out of the house now. You’ve been here a year.”

CB: Prior to leaving WestJet, what did you think about your work-life balance?
SD: I thought I did a pretty good job. But balance is never as good as you think. In business, you always have metrics to understand when you’ve won or lost. The issue we have with family life is the lack of clear metrics. How do you really know when you and your kid are connecting? You don’t. I think that’s where we fall short. You know, it took me nine or 10 months to really know about my daughter and about my son. I had to learn what makes them tick, what they like, what they don’t like, where I have to spend the time. It took me 10 months with my darling wife to learn that I could stop being so nervous and so scared. If I’d call home and she wasn’t feeling good, I’d go, “Holy shit, she’s having another tumour.” I was so scared about everything, but after I walked away, I was able to figure out what she is really all about. And so I’m not panicked all the time when my wife is simply not feeling good. My new life has been absolutely amazing. It really puts everything in perspective. And that changes you.

CB: Are you being blown away doing things you never thought you’d do?
SD: Absolutely. I gotta tell you, right after I stepped back from WestJet, my daughter got into the Young Canadians, a 50-year-old organization behind the Grandstand Show at the Calgary Stampede. I started taking her to rehearsals, hanging around with my laptop, and I became known as Stage Dad. It was fantastic. She went on to play young Cosette in a local production of Les Mis?rables and I became Stage Dad there, too. That run finished last weekend, and we hosted the cast and crew party. I said to some of my other Les Mis parents, “I’m going to get friggin’ sweatpants done up and we’re going to put ‘Stage Dad’ right on the ass like the sweatpants kids wear today.”

CB: Anything else?
SD: Yeah. It’s been fantastic to be involved in the simple things, like just hanging with my son in the morning. I used to work out at 5:30, eat breakfast, then be gone by 7:30 or 8:00, when the kids were just getting up. Now we are taking family adventures. Last August, we took a different trip every week. We went RVing in Saskatchewan. I had never driven an RV. I had never really even RV’d before. Doing family stuff like that is pretty cool.

CB: Do you think a lot of executives fail to realize they have reached a point financially where everything in life is obtainable?
SD: Yeah.

CB: So how do you know if you should quit?
SD: If someone asked me that tomorrow, I’d say “Are you stuck? Are you doing it just because you’re doing it? Don’t go through the motions.”

CB: And if they don’t really want to quit but feel pulled in two directions?
SD: Learn what balance really means. Understand how much weight to give guilty pleasures, like being a stage dad or being around when a kid starts doing things like math and the ABCs. If I do go back to running a corporation, when I come home I’ll know exactly where to focus my time.

CB: What are you doing to keep in touch with the business world?
SD: I’m doing work with a bunch of boards. I do a fun little start-up called Rodeo Capital and an oil company run by a good friend. Despite living in Calgary for more than two decades, I didn’t know the oil business, and the opportunity to learn has been great. I am also a director of Northland Power, a large, well-respected blue chip run out of Toronto. That’s electricity, my old business, so it sort of keeps my hand in that sector as well.

CB: Will you ever get back on the corporate saddle?
SD: There’s no doubt that I dearly miss the game, the challenge, leading people, building strategy, all that good stuff. I’d probably do it for the right opportunity. But I’d go into it with a different mindset.

CB: So, what have you learned?
SD: It’s about putting down the BlackBerry. People get comfortable working too much, or scared to quit. So many people say, “Frig, I hate what I’m doing, and my marriage is in trouble, but jeez, I gotta work, blah-blah-blah.” My advice is: If you’re not happy, if you’re not doing what you love, don’t friggin’ do it. Life’s too friggin’ short.