Firing Neeleman; JetBlue Just Blew It

Mark February 14th, 2007 as the day that destroyed JetBlue. Not because the airline massively screwed up, stranded 1,000 planes, and turned passengers into captives. But because David Neeleman, JetBlue's founder and CEO, was unable to recover from the debacle. Despite more apologies than Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin combined, last week he was removed as CEO from the company he visioned into flight.

The board did what boards do: replacing a passionate, entrepreneurial creator with a skilled "operator." In this case, it's David Barger, who had been president since the airline got started.

Why Barger, as president, was Tefloned from responsibility for the February 14th fiasco is another question. Shouldn't the guy who's responsible for the day-to-day at least take some of the heat, rather than be promoted? Doesn't make any sense to me.

The more important point is that Neeleman remains the best person to guide JetBlue through its next phase of growth — whatever that might be. The fact that the airline was able to survive the incident, and that JetBlue's apology was accepted by most of the flying public, was solely based on the enormous reservoir of affection that the airline had built up thanks to Neelman's vision of an airline that would challenge the conventional wisdom of the industry on every level.

Back in 2005 I wrote a column for Inc. about this very subject, disputing the conventional wisdom that mature businesses eventually outgrow their cowboy creators, and need to be replaced by professional CEO. Tell that to Apple shareholders, who watched helplessly as the board pushed out Steve Jobs and replaced him with a series of ciphers. Michael Dell back at the helm is another example of what happens when the founder is kicked out, or kicked upstairs.

The JetBlue scenario follows exactly the script that I warned against back then, and I predict that the airline will gradually squander the emotional connection it has built via its relentless and joyous focus on the customer.

The press reports on tossing Neeleman out of the cockpit include the issue of first class service; Neeleman is against it, holding to the democratic nature of the brand's value system. The speculation also is that because Delta is emerging from bankruptcy and the low-cost market is getting tougher, that JetBlue will soon will decide to compete by becoming "like any other airline."

Under Barger, we can expect to see all the qualities that made JetBlue, JetBlue gradually vanish. How dumb is that? Seems to me that this marketing context demands more Neeleman, not less Neeleman.

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5 Comments

  • Mike McCue

    I couldn't agree more with this. The day Neeleman was pressured to step aside was not just a dark day for JetBlue. It was a dark day for entrepreneurs everywhere who have looked up to him as one of the few truly great customer centric visionaries.

    - mike

  • Brian Reich

    I couldn't agree more. I was drafting a post for this blog with the same thought. I will miss the old, cool jetBlue.

  • Harry

    I saw this happen with a biotech I worked for. Once the board pushed out the founder, the company spiraled into the toilet as they tried to be what everyone else was, instead of being the unique, innovative company they started out as.

  • Laurent

    Excellent article (and the column for Inc is just as good). I'd be curious to know if JetBlue employees have some kind of small perk, because it's generally the first thing to go when the "professionals" take over (case in point, Amazon's free aspirin perk that the first big outsider tried to get rid of).

    But the investors might know what they are doing. If VCs have an initial common goal with entrepreneurs, those goals differ after a while. VCs are focused on the short-term stock value and obviously like to work with people who will show them a lot of respect. Entrepreneurs seldom excel at either. But professional CEOs do.