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.