CALGARY – As Sean Durfy navigated Canada’s second-largest airline through a ruthless economic environment, he was simultaneously dealing with turbulent times for his young family.
On Tuesday, Durfy explained why his role as husband and father ultimately trumped his role as chief executive officer at WestJet Airlines Ltd. (TSX:WJA).
“In my 15-year career of being an executive, I’ve never had more than two weeks off. It’s about time that I spend more time with my family,” Durfy, 43, told a news conference.
“It’s amazing that people have a hard time accepting that in this day and age.”
WestJet announced without warning late Monday that Durfy would step down and that Gregg Saretsky, vice-president of operations, would take the helm. Durfy is to stay on and help with the transition until September.
Durfy’s only plans so far are to spend time with his wife, three-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.
“I like to call it ‘Freedom-43.’ So effectively I’m retired,” Durfy said, adding that the idea of returning to the “all-consuming” airline industry holds no appeal.
In an interview, Durfy said he made his decision to step down after his wife, Tracy, recovered from a long illness. She had a brain tumour removed four years ago, and suffered some complications this past year, which only recently cleared up.
“With her health now fully recovered and feeling fantastic, I sat back and we thought about it and said ‘What do we need to do?”‘ he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
“And what we need to do as a family is spend more time together and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
The announcement came as a surprise and raised speculation that Durfy was replaced because of the airline’s recent financial performance and operational problems.
Airline industry analyst Rick Erickson said he was “dismayed” by those reports.
“Profits are off in the last quarter. Well guess what? Profits are off with every single airline worldwide, even glorious Southwest (Airlines) is not performing to the same level that WestJet has,” he said.
The introduction of WestJet’s new reservation system last fall came with a lot of glitches that left customers on the phone for hours and caused long lineups at airports. Those problems have since been fixed.
“I wouldn’t point my finger at Durfy for that – not by any means,” Erickson said.
He said he takes Durfy’s reason for leaving at “face value” and that there was no evidence of a “coup” to push him out.
“It’s obviously a personal call that he’s made. He’s got young children. I gather he feels his resources are much better spent looking after those affairs,” he said.
All airlines have suffered over the past year or so as the recession dampened travel plans for many consumers. The H1N1 flu scare also dissuaded travellers from visiting Mexico, where the virus first cropped up a year ago.
Saretsky, Durfy’s successor, said he’ll guide the airline through growth into more international markets.
WestJet already has plans to roll out code-share deals with Air France, the Netherlands’ KLM and Texas-based Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV).
Building on that, WestJet wants to see traffic from Asia, South America and elsewhere in Europe come to Canada on its network, Saretsky said.
“Our goal is to have good coverage on all continents,” Saretsky said in an interview after the news conference.
“Because of our reputation we have lots of airlines beating a trail to our door. We’re going to be pretty choosy. We’re going to pick those that have the same service culture and a great reputation.”
Looking ahead, Erickson said he expects business as usual for WestJet for the next year or so.
“I don’t think we’ll see much over the next full year. I don’t think there will be virtually any change from the direction that WestJet has already carved out for itself,” Erickson said.
“I think it will be a pretty seamless transition over to Saretsky.”
Hiring Saretsky in June 2009 to head up WestJet’s vacations business was a “sage investment” on the airline’s part, because of his managerial experience at now-defunct Canadian Airlines and later at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, Erickson said. Saretsky took charge of WestJet’s operations in October.
Durfy joined WestJet in 2004 as the executive in charge of marketing, sales and airport operations. He became president in September 2006 and chief executive a year later.
During his tenure, WestJet established the company’s vacations business in the U.S. sunny South, the new reservations system, partnerships with other airlines and new rewards programs.
WestJet has grown rapidly in recent years and now provides flights to 55 destinations in Canada, the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean with a fleet 737 aircraft that will soon grow to 88. The company employed nearly 7,500 people at the end of 2008.
Shares of WestJet Airlines Ltd. fell 56 cents or more than four per cent Tuesday to $13.31 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.