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Religious CEOs: JetBlue Founder, David Neeleman


A Mormon and former missionary, the airline's founder made service his purpose.

Ten years ago JetBlue (JBLU) was a breath of fresh air in an airline industry bogged down by the ways of legacy carriers that were unconcerned with customer service and known for price gouging. JetBlue was revolutionary. With a fleet of new planes -- all Airbus A320s, which cut down on repair costs -- a staff that worked primarily from home, and 40% of ticket sales executed online, the company emerged as the premier low-cost carrier focused on providing extra-friendly, efficient service.

The credit for this seismic shift goes to JetBlue's founder, David Neeleman. He parlayed his service-oriented background into one of the fastest-growing and largest airlines in the US.

Neeleman, 50, is a Mormon. He was born in Brazil while his father was doing journalism work there and was later raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. As is customary for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Neeleman returned to Brazil where he worked as a missionary; he performed more than 200 baptisms for converts and learned Portuguese. He says his return to Brazil really changed him -- unlike during his childhood when he was surrounded by privilege, his missionary work showed him how caring and giving people could be even when in the throes of poverty. Neeleman told Minyanville that his time working with the poor of Brazil gave him a disdain for the overly rich.

"People do a better job if they respect the leader of the company. I learned that on my mission -- the value of people and how to truly appreciate them," Neeleman is quoted saying in Jeff Benedict's book The Mormon Way of Doing Business. "My missionary experience obliterated class distinction for me. I learned to treat everyone the same."

The egalitarian nature of his religion, something Neeleman says is often misunderstood, has always been reflected in his companies. Neeleman has never had his own parking spot and donated his salary at JetBLue to the catastrophic fund for the employees. "It seemed hoggish of me have all this stuff when others didn't because every time I would get something someone else would have less," Neeleman told Minyanville. "I think that orientation of my mission is where I really had the disdain for people who thought they were better than others."

Religion is so deeply rooted in the father of nine that he would charter planes or buy blocks of seats to fly Mormons and converts to church conventions. As CEO of JetBlue, Neeleman took time to work as a flight attendant several times a year to be closer to his customers and his staff, feeling the best way to keep a happy staff was to work with them. "If the CEO is down there helping employees tag bags and clean airplanes, employees feel better about going to work. People will go the extra mile for you," said Neeleman. "They know I'm not sitting in some part of the airplane where I don't want to be talked to. Instead, I hang out with crew members." In a 2001 Forbes interview Neeleman added, "We don't want jaded people working here. If you don't like people or can't deal with rude customers, you'll be fired."

While JetBlue's business approach was innovative when it first took flight, the low-cost air model hasn't been performing as well since the airline transformed into a major carrier; the fleet has begun to age and repairs have become costly. In April, the airline reported a loss in the first quarter due to higher costs. Beyond that, the service-oriented model that Neeleman preached when he first founded the carrier has broken down. JetBlue has been plagued by service problems over the last few years that peaked when a planeload of passengers was stuck on the tarmac on Valentine's Day for several hours.

JetBlue was the third of four airlines that Neeleman has started. He started Morris Air, which began as low-cost flight packages to Hawaii for Utah families, with June Morris. The airline was later bought out by Southwest for $130 million in 1993; Neeleman got $20 million of that. After a short stint at Southwest Airlines (LUV), he then helped create a low-cost airline in Canada called WestJet. In 1998, he quickly raised money for JetBlue. Since being ousted as CEO of the airline and later leaving the position of Chairman at JetBlue, Neeleman has started another airline, Azul Linhas Aereas Brasileiras, in Brazil. In 2008, he raised $150 million to finance the 36 Brazilian-made jet fleet. Neeleman now spends most of his week in Brazil and weekends at home in the US. He believes the airline industry will be better off once its consolidated and sees the low-cost carriers gaining business by filling in the cracks left behind by the legacy airlines.

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