The corporate culture of WestJet Airlines is the most admired in the country, a survey suggests, even after the low-cost carrier publicly admitted earlier this year to spying on arch-rival Air Canada.
Senior executives with Canada's top 1,000 public and private firms cited WestJet more than any other company, selecting it over the Royal Bank of Canada, doughnut icon Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire Corp.
"Culture is an easy thing for WestJet employees to talk about -- that's what makes the company interesting," said Marty Parker, managing director of Waterstone Human Capital, which conducted the annual study. "It's not an easy thing for most organizations to define."
WestJet's public identity -- modelled somewhat after U.S. low-cost pioneer Southwest Airlines -- is frequently lauded as the carrier's single-biggest competitive advantage.
Employees are granted profit-sharing cheques twice a year; passengers are treated to corny riddles on board and steadfastly referred to as guests; executives jokingly dub themselves "big shots" and "bean-counters."
It's a collegial spirit WestJet intends to maintain, says co-founder Don Bell, even though the Calgary-based discount carrier has grown from a regional startup with a couple of planes to a North American airline with 33 destinations and a staff of more than 5,000.
"Culture means a lot of things," Bell said. "It drives productivity, it drives safety, it drives customer service.
"One of the comments we get from our customers all the time is, 'How do you make your people look like they enjoy their job?' It's not something you can train or instill -- it's something that has to be felt."
But WestJet's image as a scrappy underdog whose low fares and folksy, egalitarian approach allowed it to thrive in an industry notorious for failure took a hit last May when the airline admitted that senior executives had led a scheme to steal confidential information from Air Canada.
WestJet agreed to pay $5.5 million in investigative and legal bills, plus a $10 million donation to charity -- a small financial payout relative to the $220 million sought by Air Canada in its corporate espionage lawsuit.
It ended a tale of intrigue that had haunted WestJet for two years, when allegations surfaced that the airline used secret passwords belonging to a former Air Canada employee to rifle through sensitive data about Air Canada's most profitable routes.
The incident, while embarrassing, shouldn't detract from the accolades WestJet deserves for cultivating an admirable culture that sets it apart from other companies, said Karl Moore, a senior business professor at McGill University who closely follows the airline industry.
"WestJet people are known for their sense of humour and having a personal stake in the company as part owners. Even the advertising reflects that," he said.
Dan Ondrack, a professor of human resource management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, believes WestJet's decision to ultimately own up to its mistake rather than continue to fight it out in court probably bolstered its reputation in the court of public opinion.
"It's a much more honourable course of behaviour to say 'we're sorry and it won't happen again' than to to deny the act took place," he said. "It brings closure to the event and people can move on."
The other companies to make Waterstone Human Capital's top-10 list are Royal Bank of Canada, Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, Dell Canada, Microsoft Canada, Four Seasons Hotels, Research in Motion, Starbucks and, tied for 10th, Yellow Pages Group and Manulife Financial.
It's the second time in as many years WestJet has topped the survey.
From the October 2005 issue of Canadian Business magazine
Available at: http://www.canadianbusiness.com/managing/strategy/article.jsp?content=20051010_71478_71478
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