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Robert Deluce flies through the turbulence

‘I don’t believe you can expect the status quo to be a formula for longer-term success,’ says Robert Deluce, president and CEO of Porter Airlines.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Robert Deluce apologizes profusely for being late for a telephone interview but in reality the Porter Airlines founder and front man is less than 10 minutes behind schedule, not unusual for a busy president and chief executive officer whose time is in constant demand.

Still, when you run a company in a competitive and very public industry, everything you do is under the microscope and, in the airline business, being on time is Job 1.

Mr. Deluce can have a pass. Porter, based on the Toronto Islands at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, has more fans than detractors, and most passengers who fly the regional service rave about their experience. From check-in to the final baggage carousel, Porter has managed to take out much of the stress associated with modern air travel.

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None of this is an accident. Like fellow airline boss Sir Richard Branson, Mr. Deluce is fastidious in the details.

"I really do admire Richard Branson, though I don't think I'm in the same league," he says humbly. "People who are entrepreneurial or innovative probably don't think of themselves being that way, but your style and ability to innovate does evolve.

"Our own startup with Porter was taking a lemon and making lemonade. … The cancellation of the pedestrian bridge [to the airport, approved by the city in 1997 but cancelled by then-mayor-elect David Miller in 2003] meant we had to reinvent ourselves."

It was tough going, says Mr. Deluce, because Porter's entire business model was built around passengers accessing the airport via a drawbridge. The startup, founded in 1999 with $125-million in private investment, seemed doomed to crash and burn before it even took flight.

"But I got a lot of encouragement from a lot of high-profile people, icons like George Cohon [founder of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada], who sent me a note and told me to press on."

Porter prevailed and the fledgling airline took off in October of 2006 with just two aircraft flying 10 trips to Ottawa. Today it has a fleet of 26 Bombardier Q400s, with 1,400 employees serving 19 destinations (although some, such as Mont Tremblant in Quebec, are seasonal).

Porter is also waiting on approvals to fly CS100 Whisper Jets in and out of Billy Bishop – a controversial plan which has raised the ire of the anti-airport community. A pedestrian tunnel opening in 2015 will let Porter make its services even more accessible: "It's a game-changer."

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But Mr. Deluce, 63, whose family has a history in aviation, is no stranger to controversy and resistance.

"We had a good business plan and we came out of that [bridge reversal] strong with a good ferry system to serve our passengers," he says. "Sometimes there are learning opportunities and you have to be open to grasp them. So we've stopped looking at challenges and adversity in that light as problems. Things may get awkward but they're a speed bump. You may have to slow down and get to the right to miss the bump, but you can navigate around it. Once you look at things from that perspective, anything is possible."

Innovation has to be part of a company's fabric, he says, and having the right mix of personnel is critical.

"It takes all types of people to make up a corporate culture," he says. "We have the very optimistic, glass half-full or three-quarters-full, to the more hesitant if a big speed bump comes at them. But where there's a will there's a way."

A wide range of personalities and risk tolerances allows a better exploration of the perimeters and better preparation, he says.

"Whether you're doing something which is innovative or just routine, the devil is always going to be in the details. If you're better prepared, you have more successful outcomes," he says, insisting Porter is much more than a one-man team.

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"It's essential for an organization to have a foundation of entrepreneurship in place and it goes beyond a single person. But you're really on shaky ground if you think one person can sustain an enterprise."

Managers can only mentor and lead to a point, he adds. At some point the people on the team have to be able to express themselves creatively and deliver the desired result.

"Steve Jobs at Apple may have been a bit of a one-man show prior to returning to the company [for his second stint as CEO], but I think afterward he was more mentoring and inspirational, and that spirit lives on in the people who saw what Steve was doing and were inclined to innovation and creativity."

He says small companies that are run well and have foresight – call it innovation – can grow to be large organizations, just as his own family aviation business focused on hunting and fishing charters and grew to become Air Ontario.

"Seeing that around me my entire life probably did affect me in the sense I don't believe you can expect the status quo to be a formula for longer-term success," he says. "You're always going ask yourself, how do you get to the next level, how do you reinvent yourself? It's the ingredient for success."

Moving forward, however, is as essential in aerodynamics as it is in business. There's no rest mid-flight.

"We can't put our feet up in the hammock in the afternoon just because we had a couple of good flights in the morning," he laughed. "The moment you do that you're in trouble. We know we're in the airline business and you have to be on guard and innovative and thinking ahead every day. For instance, a lot of competitors have adopted our Porter perks. They're going to have to stay on their toes because there are more perks coming."

The company, or even some employee initiatives, might stumble but that's okay, Mr. Deluce stresses. Sitting back is not acceptable but trying to move forward should always be applauded.

"Failure is absolutely necessary and essential," he says. "The bridge was our darkest moment but we innovated and moved forward. The bridge concept would have been limiting, as good as it was at the time, because of our passenger growth, which exceeded what we ever contemplated. That bridge would have to open four times an hour to let boats through in the summer. Frankly, it turned out to be a real blessing and let us move forward with something that lets us offer a higher level of passenger service."

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