Live & Learn: WestJet co-founder Don Bell

The WestJet co-founder on corporate culture and flying.

Born on April 28, 1955, in Calgary • One of four WestJet founders, pilot

I’m very mechanical. I spent a lot of time on my family’s farm northeast of Calgary. I loved the tractors, combines and food.

I didn’t have a career path in mind other than engineering. One of my mom’s friends had a business that overhauled airplane engines, and I worked there the summer I was 16. The plan was always to go to university, because my dad was an electrical engineer.

I went to the University of Calgary for a couple of years, and then took a year off to go do a computer project with a friend of mine that I’d met through the airport. We came up with this bright idea to start a computer company when I was 22 or 23. I ended up running that for about 15 years.

We did niche markets — accounting, medical, dental, and we got into restaurants and hotels. Every time we sold something, we provided service contracts. That’s really where I learned customer service and how to take care of customers.

I’m a university dropout. No, I’m just on sabbatical. I got my university degree elsewhere — from the school of hard knocks.

My role at WestJet evolved around the customer side, the culture side, the people side — you know, the soft side. In the early days, I got to impart a lot of my personal philosophies about customer service and taking care of people into the business.

We always said that if you take care of the people, they’ll take care of the customer and the investor. Don’t build bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy. In fact, I hate bureaucracy. Eradicate it at any cost. It was easy to do in those days. We could change and fix and innovate. That attracted the kind of people that WestJet has become known for.

We have people, not employees. We got rid of labels. It contributes to that egalitarian environment, where we take our jobs seriously but not ourselves. Esprit de corps was phenomenal. The attitude, family, heart. Those are the things that I think I imparted on the business.

I often say the real culture in an organization is what you do when you’re not being watched.

A good corporate culture happens when you put people first, have an egalitarian environment, and a set of values and philosophies that’s lived from the top down. Don’t get laid down with bureaucracies and policies. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

I’ve always been a worrier. For some things, I have incredible attention to detail to make sure things happen right. I spent a lot of time worrying about all the little details. I don’t think I ever really had the time to sit back and go, “Wow, look what we built.” It kind of grows up around you. One day we’re at three airplanes, and now we’re at 65.

I can’t really say I have any regrets. I never have regrets. I ponder about decisions too long, weigh them all out.

I always flew, always owned an airplane or flew an airplane for someone. I’ve always been interested in aviation. I own a couple of airplanes. I’ll continue to fly something.

I have four young kids who are ages eight through 14. They’re really the centre of my life, so they’ll come first. We’ll do a lot of skiing, a lot of goofing around. I’ve got some investments in building projects. Just managing life and kids and investments. I’ll spend more time with the kids and go to their schools. I’m looking forward to that.

My son, who’s 14, wants to ride his bike across Canada and wants me to go with him. I told him I’d drive the chase vehicle. We’ll see. I’m actually starting to think that it might be a good idea, although I’d have to start working out, like, tomorrow.

We live on a spread that’s 20 acres. We also have what we call “the Ranch,” which is 300 acres out in the foothills. Out there we go camping and quading and dirt-biking. It’s very pretty country.

If you can somehow make sure that you keep bureaucracies and policies, turf wars and politics out, it’s important. If you can find effective ways to communicate with your people, tell them whatever you can tell them. Tell them everything, because if you do, they will give you everything.

Be honest, be true to yourself. Know what your passions are and follow your passions. I know when we started WestJet we were consumed by it, we couldn’t stop it. It’s good to be passionate. I have a little too many passions.

I’ve got a bunch of antique tractors. I like anything with a motor. My cousin and I have a contest: he who dies with the most pistons wins. So far, I’m winning.