JetBlue Fueled by David Neelemans ADD
Great article about the founder of JetBlue...flying high with ADD
JetBlue soars on CEO's creativity
By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — Even as he talks about his passion — the airline he founded — David Neeleman fidgets. He fingers the airport identity pass he wears around his neck. He plucks a model airplane off the tabletop and scans its underbelly.
Sometimes when you talk to him, his head seems elsewhere. "Out in space," he readily admits.
"Where do you go when you do that?" he recalls someone asking. "I had some thought in my mind," he replied nebulously.
Far from lacking in mental acuity, Neeleman is CEO and the mercurial driving force behind JetBlue, the discount airline that's become one of the few shiny spots in a tarnished industry. He attributes his scatterbrained nature to attention deficit disorder (ADD).
Neeleman, 42, was diagnosed with ADD about three years ago after reading about it. Symptoms of ADD — estimated to affect 4% to 6% of the population — can include being easily distracted, forgetfulness and restlessness.
Yet Neeleman views his hyperactivity as an asset. He won't take medication for fear he might be robbed of the creativity and energy propelling JetBlue to rapid growth through intense customer service and innovations such as 24 channels of live TV at every seat.
Neeleman's sometimes erratic approach to life is just one of the quirks making him one of the fascinating leaders in an industry long known for larger-than-life characters.
Those who know him are often asked to draw comparisons to such colorful figures as Southwest Airlines Chairman Herb Kelleher, a chain-smoking, whiskey-loving prankster, or Continental's Gordon Bethune, a brash former naval aviation mechanic who still swears like one.
But Neeleman is an original.
He's a night owl who prowls the Internet for airline developments after his family goes to bed, phoning subordinates as late as 2 a.m. before catching four or five hours of sleep.
He flies his own airline at least once a week, announcing over the intercom that he's aboard, then greeting all passengers — 162 on a full flight. An entrepreneur at heart, he uses cocktail napkins to scribble passengers' suggestions, which get attention as soon as the plane lands.
He's a father of nine who is so deeply religious that he charters planes or buys blocks of seats to fly Mormon faithful and potential converts to church conventions.
He lacks the patience for hobbies, rarely watches television or reads books other than scripture.
"He's always intrigued me because he's a little off the beaten path, and I can't always read him," says Vicki Neeleman, his wife of 21 years.
Certainly, he doesn't make it easy. Some of Neeleman's employees compare him to nuclear fission. Whether it's championing a crusade within the company — his latest is the notion of separate lavatories for men and woman on planes — or scouting for new routes, he bounces from issue to issue like a free neutron.
"It's challenging because he wants to be everywhere all the time," says Tim Clayton, a JetBlue vice president. He's always unloading ideas, "because if he doesn't get it out now, he'll forget it."
One thing that Neeleman can focus on is JetBlue. That's one of the hallmarks of the disorder, the ability to concentrate on one central interest, he explains.
For him, it's airlines.
Neeleman is succeeding where others have failed. The 2-year-old airline is adding 15 planes this year and hiring 1,000 workers at a time when major airlines are slashing fleets and laying off workers. Service to the 20th destination, Las Vegas, starts Thursday.
While the industry expects to lose more than $6 billion this year, JetBlue earned $27.6 million in the first half of 2002 on the strength of low operating costs and cheap fares. It has among the highest load factors in the industry — more than 80% of seats filled compared with 72.3% for the industry for the first eight months of the year.
Routines get him through
To keep his airline on top, Neeleman has tried to inject order into his life, whether he's at the office near New York's Kennedy International Airport or home in suburban Connecticut.
From his wife to his executive staff, he surrounds himself with people who are naturally organized.
He develops routines. He always puts his wallet and keys in the same place when he's at home. He wears a Casio Databank watch, typing reminders of ideas or appointments.
He buys the watches four at a time, expecting them to either break or disappear. Once, Vicki Neeleman couldn't find her husband during a backyard barbecue. He had driven away and "left the chicken to burn," she says. His excuse: "Oh, I had to go buy a watch."
Just as he loses watches, he has trouble hanging on to just about everything. "If someone gives me a fancy pen, it's gone in a day," he says.
Vicki smiles and shakes her head. She takes his quirks in stride. "You can't get mad at everything or you'd be mad at him all the time," she says.
In fact, David Neeleman thrives on distraction. Every few minutes, he checks the BlackBerry device strapped to his waist for new e-mails. He gets a message whenever a plane leaves its gate late. He wanders out of company meetings whenever he gets bored, which is frequently, usually ending up in the marketing department for a few minutes before going back. He loves to shop at Costco, a store swirling with activity. He brings home so many bags, they fill the kitchen floor.
His father, Gary Neeleman, says his son was restless even as a youth. "David hated fishing," he says. "He didn't have the patience. He would start fishing, and 2 minutes later, he is throwing rocks in the pond."
Where it all began
Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where his father was a wire service correspondent, David Neeleman learned entrepreneurship as a boy while helping out at his grandparents' grocery in Salt Lake City.
He later returned to Brazil as a Mormon missionary, baptizing more than 200 converts and learning fluent Portuguese.
After dropping out of college, Neeleman became interested in the air charter business. He teamed with a travel operator, June Morris, to create low-cost Hawaii packages for Utah families.
That led to the creation of Morris Air, a low-fare carrier that was bought by Southwest in 1993. Neeleman netted $20 million in the deal. He went to work for Southwest but chafed under a structure that he perceived as thwarting his best ideas. Kelleher fired him after five months.
Restricted by an agreement not to compete in the USA for five years, Neeleman helped found a Canadian discount carrier, WestJet Airlines, and a ticketless reservation system, Open Skies, later sold to Hewlett-Packard in 1999 for $22 million. He also says he dabbled in some bad investments — from medical devices to pretzels.
All the while, he marked time until he could jump back into the airline business. His vision: a better Southwest.
Like the Dallas-based discounter, JetBlue's fleet would be one type of plane — Airbus A-320s. And people would buy their tickets on the Internet or from reservations agents. To improve the experience over Southwest, JetBlue would offer assigned seating. Also, JetBlue would be the only airline to offer live television via satellite at no charge. Having TV has proved so valuable that JetBlue bought the provider to protect its advantage over rivals.
Unlike other start-ups, JetBlue would be one of the best financed ever. At most recent count, before it bought the television system company, JetBlue had $295 million on hand. The airline didn't apply for federal loan guarantees like United, US Airways and other major airlines.
"He has deep convictions on how to run a business and give the customer quality," says GCW Consulting President Morris Garfinkle, who works with the industry and knows Neeleman.
The San Francisco venture-capital firm Weston Presidio took a 20% stake as one of the original investors in JetBlue after Neeleman more than tripled the firm's investment profits in Morris Air in 14 months. "David was the king of execution," says Weston partner Michael Lazarus, who became JetBlue's chairman.
Lazarus, who is Jewish, says he jokingly promised Neeleman he would become a Mormon if his firm made back 10 times its investment on JetBlue. "I'm getting dangerously close," he says.
Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt calls Neeleman "a genius when it comes to making airlines work." Besides serving Salt Lake City, JetBlue has hired 750 workers in Utah, most of them stay-at-home, $8-an-hour reservations takers.
Neeleman has an 8% stake in JetBlue, worth $117.6 million. He draws a $200,000 salary. But he's more than willing to give some of it back: He's matching employee contributions to a worker welfare fund dollar-for-dollar.
Yet for having amassed a fortune, he and his family remain remarkably humble. "I can't stand snobby people," he says.
He drives a silver 1999 GMC Yukon awash in shoes, cell phone cords, a three-quarters-empty bottle of Snapple Prickly Pear, a few company reports and Mormon literature, which he is quick to offer guests.
The seven Neeleman children at home, ages 3-16, bunk two or more to a room. The family sold a 12,000-square-foot house in favor of one that's 8,000 square feet because Vicki wanted one that's easier to clean. She's raising the kids without a nanny and says she hopes for a 10th child — a "caboose," she says.
On a single Saturday earlier this month, the Neeleman clan collectively bounced between four soccer games, a football game, a track meet, a movie, a baptism and an interview.
Neeleman just made the cover of Forbes magazine and is being profiled by CBS' 60 Minutes II. But he doesn't believe his fellow airline CEOs give him a second thought.
"I think they think we're another start-up. But I don't care if they respect me. I could care less. I'm not in this business to gain respect from other airline CEOs," he says.
Sure enough, top executives at other airlines didn't want to talk about Neeleman. But he has himself as his own harshest critic. He says it's another hallmark of ADD, a fear of constant failure even in the face of clear success. He calls it "an inability to celebrate."
Says Neeleman: "There's no end in sight to the meltdown in the airline industry. To think we aren't affected by those events would be naive."
But with JetBlue flying ahead of the pack, everyone else seems to be celebrating. And Neeleman says he wouldn't change a thing. Even having ADD. "If I could take a magic pill that would get rid of it, I wouldn't," he says.