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Gregg Saretsky, CEO ofWestJet Airlines Ltd. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Gregg Saretsky, CEO ofWestJet Airlines Ltd. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

WestJet CEO sets his sights on international skies Add to ...

During his 28 years in the airline business, Gregg Saretsky has lived through a crisis or two – or three.

Fortunately, the chief executive officer of WestJet Airlines Ltd., has learned from them, notably the near-bankruptcy in the early 1990s of the perpetually troubled Canadian Airlines during which he and his colleagues at the airline banded together to keep it from going over the brink.

“What I learned is that if you can have that sense of collegiality and strength of culture without having to be standing at the edge of the precipice, you’re much better off,” Mr. Saretsky says.

What he also knows only too well, is that North America is littered with the wreckage of airlines that grew too fast, lost their focus or lacked a robust corporate culture that could sustain them through the cycles in one of the most cyclical of industries that in the past 15 years has experienced 9/11, SARS and the Great Recession.

A distinct corporate culture that forms part of the foundation of WestJet is evident in the airy, six-storey head office at its campus at Calgary International Airport and is mission critical for Mr. Saretsky. Maintaining the “WestJetter” culture becomes more difficult as the airline grows and employees debate whether to transform it from an upstart that challenges Air Canada only in North America into a full-fledged international airline that will assault its rival head-on in all markets.

That transformation won’t happen unless WestJet employees approve the move, as they have the creation of the airline’s Encore regional service and other methodical steps that have made WestJet a force to be reckoned with.

“It’s the beauty of a transparent culture where you actually take your ideas to your people,” the 54-year-old Mr. Saretsky says over a lunch of spinach salad washed down with a club soda at a Moxie’s southeast of the airport. “You have to be willing to operate in a very transparent fashion with your people if you expect them to be able to support [new ideas].”

The transparency is literal as well as figurative. The glass walls of Mr. Saretsky’s fifth-floor office – and those of other senior company executives – look out over the atrium in the centre of the building. From balconies running along the atrium, employees can see who is in the offices meeting the senior executives.

The outer areas of each floor in the building, with their views of the airport and on a clear day, the Rocky Mountains, are occupied by rank and file workers. Executives and department heads populate the interiors.

For someone whose father was a flight director at Air Canada and whose mother was a manager in customer relations at Canadian Pacific Airlines, it was perhaps a foregone conclusion that Mr. Saretsky would end up running an airline – especially since he worked summers as a flight attendant and customer service agent while attending university.

There was a diversion, however, before he went into the airline business full-time. He went to work for the Bank of Montreal as a commercial account manager, even though he graduated from University of British Columbia with a degree in microbiology and microchemistry.

He got pulled back into the airline orbit in 1986 when he joined a Canadian Pacific working group that was set up to create a vision of what the airline would look like in 2000.

As he tells it, his childhood instilled in him a love of travel. And we’re talking serious travel – help-build-a-school-in-Kenya travel this August; studying-the-upstart-versus-legacy-airline-battle travel to Australia in January; get-away-from-it-all-in-the-Cook-Islands travel.

But it’s an upcoming trip to Dublin in June that underlines the scope of Mr. Saretsky’s ambitions for WestJet. It’s the first transatlantic WestJet flight and a template for international expansion. Summer flights to the Irish capital from St. John’s will be a test for the airline as it considers whether to expand beyond its Boeing 737 jets and short-haul Bombardier turboprops and purchase the wide-bodied airplanes that would vault it into international competition.

“Flying to Dublin is going to force us to create a lot of capability that we would ultimately need if we decide to make that next leap and get wide-bodied aircraft,” he says.

That includes dealing with a new currency, selling outside its existing operations in North America, expanding its network links with British Airways and KLM and establishing relationships with European tour operators and customers. “It will really show us the way for all those things that need to come together if we want to have a much bigger international operation,” he says.

He will travel to Kenya in the summer and help the Free the Children organization build a schoolhouse. It’s his first trip to Kenya and he says it will mark what he believes will be the 250th city and 37th country he has visited, although the number is so high he doesn’t know the exact count.

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