JetBlue Airlines CEO encourages service to others

By on December 8, 2004

“When you help other people, you are the happiest.” This was the message expressed by David Neeleman, chief executive officer for JetBlue Airlines.

The University of Utah dropout said, “It is really great to be on a college campus.”

After establishing a small business which matured into a success, Neeleman found less and less time he could devote to his education despite the fact that he “values education tremendously.”

Neeleman went from thinking that “business was a piece of cake to bankruptcy almost overnight.”

The small business owner quickly ended up working at his grandfather’s store to support a wife a child.

He told the students present in Alumni Hall a week before Thanksgiving break there is a “great possibility to build a great company.”

From the start of his business he “wanted to become the best customer service airline out there.”

“Flying used to be something anticipated,” he told the students.

He said families used to look forward to flying on a plane to their destination but now many dread it. He created JetBlue in hopes of making flying enjoyable again.

He did this by “patterning” his new airline after SouthWest Airlines. Within a short time, SouthWest, the airline he admired greatly bought his airline for $15 million. Neeleman, however, lasted only a few months at SouthWest before he “ran out of things to do,” began to ask for more and got fired.

Neeleman went to Salt Lake City with $25 million “totally distraught.” He said that he realized that “some of the happiest people I knew were some of the poorest.”

The 44-year old millionaire remembered when he was a young man and served as a missionary in Brazil from 19-21. “The people there were happy and content,” he said.

The people from the poorest parts of Brazil taught him to treat everyone equally.

He said, “I learned early in life that money isn’t everything.”

When he left SouthWest Airlines, Neeleman agreed not to compete with his former employer for five years.

He told the students, “To be an entrepreneur, you need a passion. Everything I had a passion for made money, everything that I didn’t lost money.”

Because his five-year non-compete agreement was coming to an end, Neeleman began to start raising money for JetBlue Airlines. He realized buying new airplanes was cheaper than leasing older ones and that he would need $130 million to start JetBlue.

Because Neeleman was successful and investor-generous with his first airline, $90 million of the money raised was from his original investors.

In Feb., 2000, Neeleman started JetBlue Airlines. By the fourth quarter in 2000, he had made a profit. He wanted to pay people well, and has.

Last year, Neeleman paid $31 million in profit sharing. He said 84% of his employees are shareholders and 100% are profit sharers.

“I want this to be the best job they have ever had,” Neeleman said.

He and his family moved to New Canaan, Conn.

He said he is not doing it for the money. He has no stock options and sold 92% of the company and makes $200,000 per year. He does it because he loves business, his customers and employees.

At JetBlue, there is a no layoff policy. “When you send your kids to college, you know you’ll be able to pay for it,” he said.

Last year JetBlue raised $1 million for employee catastrophe fund – some of which was used to help employees affected by the hurricanes this past year.

JetBlue has made money in every quarter since 2000 and has won the distinguished Best Domestic Airline Award six months ago.

He credits his success to having “the best people because we treat them right.” He also said having the lowest costs and highest performance for customers does not hurt.

Neeleman does not believe anyone can reach the fullest level of happiness unless they help others.

He said the helping of others does not have to be monetary.

Neeleman suggested taking a “little time each week to help someone else.”


About Jamie DeLoma