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Ignore Your Company’s Culture – At Your Own Peril

Ignore Your Company’s Culture – At Your Own Peril

Alex Wilcox
June 2, 2015

Ignore your company’s culture—at your own peril.

At JetSuite, my Evergreen company of private chartered jets, this motto is more than just a saying. Our livelihood and our clients’ lives depend upon us having the right philosophy and making sure every one of our pilots espouses it.

Our people are our secret sauce.

But when we started this company, back in 2006, I had a different opinion. My board members, investors and I spent three years incubating and waiting for our new state-of-the-art, superefficient airplanes to be built. And at that time, we thought our secret sauce was the Phenom, an airplane that was about half the capital cost of our competitors’ airplanes. It is still expensive, but relatively speaking it was, and is, an economical game changer.

It turns out pilots are actually way more expensive than airplanes. The costs of employing, training and accommodating our pilots outweigh the capital costs of private jet airplanes by a factor of two.

We focused very, very diligently on our culture when we started the company. Usto Schulz, our founding director of safety, first introduced me to the idea that a company with an unintentional culture can be a dangerous one. Culture is how your people feel about your company. And in our case, our customers trust us with their lives every day. We need to make sure we cultivate a culture that promotes not just service but also safety. The two can sometimes appear to be in opposition—for example, when a customer insists on landing even though the conditions are unacceptably dangerous.

Now think about our biggest group of employees: They are pilots whom we typically see only a few days, twice a year, when they come in for training. We have the ultimate remote workforce. How do you maintain a culture among people that you never see—and who are often the only people who ever actually see your customers? This is very tricky to do and very important to get right.

Our culture is our character. Our character is our company. And our character is also our destiny. Starting around 2010, we spent a lot of time choosing our core values in a very protracted process. We involved every single person who was in the company at year two. We asked them to think about their mentors and people who were important to them, and to identify what it was in those people that they valued. And our company values came out of that. We took the biggest terms and distilled them into actionable statements. We wanted values that were clear and understandable. (You can see the results here.)

These values form the cornerstone of how we do business. Our vision and our mission is to make private jet travel available to more people than ever. And we’re pulling it off. We’ve got a long way to go to make it even more affordable, but among nationwide brands we’ve cut the costs roughly in half, and we’ve provided private jet rides for as little as $499 to thousands of people through our innovative marketing of last-minute “Suite Deals,” flights that would otherwise have flown empty. That alone has made JetSuite more popular on Facebook than the rest of the industry combined!

But it’s not just what we do. It’s how we do it that actually makes a big difference. We created our values, and we set about inculcating them in every single part of our business. We do this particularly in our hiring process. We need to make sure we bring in only pilots who fit our culture—and we are very diligent in making sure we get the right people.

To find them, we modified a process called Targeted Selection that was started by the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. They had to get a lot of pilots trained in a very short period of time, and figure out who could do it and who couldn’t, so they calculated personality traits that successful pilots, and successful people, tend to exhibit.

The process takes an entire day. Potential JetSuite pilots spend part of it in a conference room chatting with all the other candidates, asking questions and being observed by one of our chief pilots. They are formally interviewed by two different people, one pilot and one nonpilot, and both interviewers have to agree to the hire. They are then invited to a cocktail party along with the whole company to see how they handle drinking and socializing in an informal environment. You’d be surprised how many candidates get drunk at the end of the day. Those folks? They don’t get hired.

When we set down the philosophy for what became JetSuite, we didn’t talk about exit strategies. We didn’t talk about going public. We didn’t talk about getting any kind of cash return instantly because we decided we were in this to build something real and to build something good. We didn’t know it at the time, but we wanted to build something Evergreen.

We did, however, talk a lot about culture and about our core values.

Every business is tough. Ours in particular is sensitive in every possible way. It’s capital intensive: We need lots and lots of money to buy airplanes. It’s labor intensive: Every single airplane requires at least two pilots, and five if you want to staff it seven days a week. We’re commodity intensive, acutely affected by the price of fuel. We’re highly regulated. And there are other factors that are out of our control, like weather, customers’ attitudes coming onto the airplane and our pilots’ attitude the morning of a flight. We have very demanding clients who pay a lot for our service and deserve the very best. And of course, we have their lives in our hands for a part of their day.

To overcome all these externalities, we need an always dependable team operating according to an agreed set of values.

How are we doing? We’ve doubled our revenue every year for the last three and a half years running. We’ve got Evergreen investors who understand that while the path may not always be straight, we are all in it for the long haul.

And our culture and our core values reflect what we think has contributed most to our company’s growth over the last five years—how our people engage with our customers and one another.

JetBlue and JetSuite co-founder Alex Wilcox has over two decades of experience creating innovative air carriers that have improved travel for millions. With JetSuite, a private airline that launched operations in 2009, Wilcox brought new technology and unprecedented value to an industry in dire need of both. Wilcox, who now serves as JetSuite’s CEO, has been named a Henry Crown Fellow by the Aspen Institute.

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