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Neeleman: Business takes off with right plan

Published 11:50 am, Sunday, March 30, 2014

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  • David Neeleman, of New Canaan, shared his experience and ideas with a large crowd at Darien Library March 19. The founder of JetBlue Airways emphasized that people should try and make a difference, both in their professional and personal life.
Jarret Liotta/For the New Canaan News Photo: Contributed / New Canaan News
    David Neeleman, of New Canaan, shared his experience and ideas with a large crowd at Darien Library March 19. The founder of JetBlue Airways emphasized that people should try and make a difference, both in their professional and personal life. Jarret Liotta/For the New Canaan News Photo: Contributed

 

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David Neeleman, a highly successful entrepreneur who brought several major airlines up off the tarmac, wants everyone to make a difference, whether through their business enterprises or in their personal life.

The New Canaan father of nine, who started JetBlue Airways, among other ventures, and is taking Azul Brazilian Airlines to new heights, shared some of his ideas and experiences with an overflow crowd March 19 at Darien Library.

"You can make a difference," he told a packed room of about 200 people, noting it could be as a business owner, head of a department or simply as an individual and family member.

"What if I was plucked from the face of the earth?" he said. "What kind of legacy would I have?

"I really believe the more influence for good that you have, the more you influence lives," Neeleman said, and the more you'll be missed.

"I think it's an absolute truth that the more you're missed, and the more people rely on you, the happier you are," he said.

Neeleman, who grew up in Utah, dropped out of college to seek a business opportunity in real estate. That eventually led to his co-founding Morris Air Corp. in 1984, where he was president from 1988 to 1994, implementing the industry's first electronic ticketing system. In 1996, he co-founded WestJet Airlines, which is now Canada's second largest. Then, in 1998, he launched JetBlue, the office based in Darien, with which he was involved for a decade.

"He's proven it isn't just timing and luck because he's done it over and over again," said Jeffrey Wyant, president of the Darien Entrepreneurs Group, which co-sponsored Neeleman's appearance with the Fairfield County Entrepreneurs for Innovation Success.

"It's also a rare thing to do in an industry that's known for losing money," Wyant said, claiming that Azul is the most successful airline startup in history, with close to 10,000 employees and a quarter of the Brazilian market.

Neeleman cited three key areas to success in running a business, the first of which -- treatment and inclusion of employees -- he said buoy the other two.

"You want to make them ambassadors for your brand," he said, calling the term "employee" itself a "demeaning" term he doesn't like to use. "You want them to just love your company.

"Wherever they go, they should just exude your company culture," he said, even wanting to wear clothing with the company's logo on their days off.

"At Azul, we've got a mantra with our people. I want them to believe and feel that this is the best job they've ever had. ... That's the foundation of every great service company."

Second, Neeleman said, one needs to be flawless in execution. Toward that end, he goes to great lengths to receive myriad reports on how details are running throughout his company, in particular how long certain tasks take, such as the amount of time someone waits on a call.

"We work really hard on those metrics," he said.

The last, he said, is perhaps the hardest. "If somebody has a problem with you ... you want them to treat you in such a way that they're more loyal in having had a problem, than if they never had a problem with you."

He talked about the extensive mea culpa he executed in 2007 following what he called the St. Valentine's Day Massacre at JetBlue, when icy conditions in New York and subsequent confusion led to chaos throughout the entire operation.

"We gave $50 million back to our customers," he said. "We made it right with the customers. We explained why it wouldn't happen again."

By actively repairing damage, he said, good spirits grow within the customer base.

"They just love your company," he said. "They just think you're really amazing and they want to come back and do business with you again, and more importantly they tell all their friends.

"Word travels fast," he said. "When you do exceptional things for customers, they'll tell other people."

Cindy Brown, of Stamford, described Neeleman's talk as "energizing."

"His approach to dealing with people -- treating his `crew members' well -- is very important," she said.

Michael Jenson, who is completing his master's degree in business administration, just took a course that looked at some of the very issues with the airlines that Neeleman addressed.

"I thought it was an excellent kind of capstone to this study course," he said. "I was interested in the topic."

Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer.