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Calgary, Alta.---26/03/2010---Gregg Saretsky, new CEO for Westjet Airlines, in his office at the airlines' headquarters. digital photo by Larry MacDougal

Calgary, Alta.---26/03/2010---Gregg Saretsky, new CEO for Westjet Airlines, in his office at the airlines' headquarters. digital photo by Larry MacDougal

WestJet charts bold new path Add to ...

At a town hall meeting at WestJet's Calgary headquarters last week, the official business at hand was the transition in the CEO's office, from Sean Durfy to Gregg Saretsky.

The surprise news about the company's top job would stun the airline industry and dent WestJet's stock price.

Yet at the town hall, Mr. Durfy couldn't resist injecting a note of levity. He joked that the CEO's job would be "a complete cakewalk" for his successor, since he wouldn't have to contend with the recession or get blamed for the botched introduction of the SabreSonic computer reservation system last October, which left WestJet's customers fuming in airport lineups and on lengthy holds with the company's call centre.

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"You're going to have nothing to do," Mr. Durfy ribbed Mr. Saretsky.

The reality is that the incoming CEO will have a busy agenda indeed.

"We all had a good laugh, but we all recognize that this business is never easy," Mr. Saretsky said in an interview. He spoke from experience, having been vice-president of marketing at the now-defunct Canadian Airlines International Ltd., which made the mistake of trying to match Air Canada route for route.

WestJet, by contrast, was founded with almost religious devotion to doing one thing well - serve major routes in Western Canada as a no-frills carrier.

With that model successfully realized, the question hanging over Mr. Saretsky's appointment is whether he can grow WestJet without making the classic over-reach that has filled up the boneyard of Canadian aviation.

Citing the reservation crisis, Raymond James Ltd. analyst Ben Cherniavsky notes WestJet has already endured some bumps as it transforms itself.

"They are so far away from their original business model that you hardly recognize the airline," Mr. Cherniavsky said. "The complexity of WestJet is going up exponentially, and you need an airline guy like Gregg to see the initiatives through. He has the experience and he brings a lot to the table on executing on necessary ideas."

Mr. Saretsky is buckling up. "Inasmuch as this company has been teed up for success, it's going to continue to require a lot of hard work by all WestJetters," said Mr. Saretsky, who joined WestJet last June as vice-president of its vacations division, after a dozen years at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines Inc.

UP IN THE AIR

Born in the Montreal suburb of Châteauguay, Mr. Saretsky, who is now 50, seems to have been destined for an airline career. His father was director of flight services at Air Canada. After the family moved in 1970 to Richmond, B.C., his mother landed a position at CP Air, a forerunner to Canadian Airlines International. His two older brothers are pilots.

While an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Saretsky worked for three summers as an Air Canada flight attendant, and another two as a customer service agent with Wardair Inc. He not only paid his way through school, but also caught the travel bug - over the decades, he has managed to visit more than 250 cities in 34 countries.

At UBC, he thought about becoming a doctor after graduating in 1982 with a bachelor of science degree. Instead, he obtained his MBA from UBC in 1984, and then signed on as a commercial account manager at Bank of Montreal for two years.

The lure of aviation, however, proved to be irresistible. In 1985, Mr. Saretsky joined CP Air, even though it meant taking a pay cut.

Mr. Saretsky was still with the company - by now renamed Canadian Airlines International - when an upstart carrier named WestJet launched in 1996. Mr. Saretsky remembers meeting Clive Beddoe, the company's brash founding CEO, during discussions in 1997 on a potential collaboration.

Mr. Beddoe told Kevin Benson, the CEO of CAI, about WestJet's rapid growth, and raised the prospect of a partnership, perhaps on popular routes such as Vancouver-Calgary and Vancouver-Edmonton.

"There was no common ground found at the time. Clive and Kevin decided that they couldn't find a way to work together and they dismissed further discussions," Mr. Saretsky recalls.

Canadian Airlines ended up in dire financial straits two years later and would merge with Air Canada, while WestJet steadily grew.

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