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WestJet invests in human capital with new Calgary headquarters

Corporate culture is part of WestJet's strategy for success with construction of new LEED Gold certified head office

Jan 1, 2012

by Max Fawcett

It’s not easy to move the needle on growth when you’re a multibillion-dollar company, but that clearly hasn’t stopped WestJet (no. 48 on the 2012 Alberta’s Fast Growth 50) from trying. With annual revenues in excess of $2 billion, it is by far the largest company on this year’s Fast Growth 50 list. But by the looks of its recently completed head office building in Calgary, it isn’t ready to join the ranks of the slow and steady any time soon.

“Our goal by 2016 is to be one of the top five international carriers,” says Joanne Leskow, culture lead at WestJet
Photograph by John Gaucher

In 2009, the company consolidated its five Calgary offices into one central location near the city’s international airport, but it’s something of a disservice to refer to it as a building. With its state-of-the-art gym, post-modern styling, open-concept architecture and a giant cafeteria space that features a Sunterra location as well as the busiest Starbucks in the city (not to mention the steady stream of casually dressed people), it feels more like a post-secondary campus or the offices of a Silicon Valley high-tech firm.

The building itself, which was certified LEED Gold this past October, is a reflection of the company’s longstanding commitment to putting people first. Whether it’s the ergonomic work stations that allow people to sit or stand, the floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the workspace with natural light or the company’s “Right to Light” policy that reserves the best views for front-line workers (the senior managers get a view of the atrium), it’s clear WestJet has tried to create a space that people will want to work in.

It’s an investment that airlines – fighting for market share in an industry that sees 97 per cent of companies fail – don’t tend to make. But it’s one that’s already paying off, according to Joanne Leskow, the company’s culture lead. “It really has made a dramatic difference,” she says. “It’s increased efficiencies – we don’t have to spend time buzzing around from building to building and commuting – but it’s also increased synergies. We have an opportunity now to pull different groups together and get business done face-to-face.”

WestJet’s commitment to culture isn’t just a convenient marketing tool or a sop to its employees. Instead, it lies at the heart of the company’s corporate strategy. “We know that culture drives performance,” Leskow says. “Peter Drucker is famously quoted as saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and we’ve seen that play out time and time again here. We believe that culture is the cornerstone of our success.”

It’s no coincidence the company has posted 26 consecutive profitable quarters. According to research done by Waterstone Human Capital, a Toronto-based firm that is behind the Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture program, there’s a direct link between corporate culture and a company’s bottom line. For example, in 2010 the top 10 companies on its list outperformed the S&P 60 Index by an average of 600 per cent. WestJet finished in that top 10 every year from 2005 to 2008 before being inducted as one of the inaugural members of its Hall of Fame in 2009.

WestJet’s emphasis on culture also helps drive its popularity among potential job seekers. That’s hardly a minor consideration for a growing company in a labour market as tight as Alberta’s. Every week, WestJet receives 1,200 unsolicited resumés, with numbers well in excess of that when a job is actually posted. “We know that people want to work for companies with great culture,” Leskow says.

WestJet may need a lot more people in the near future, too. The size and scale of the company’s new head office reflects the change in its ambitions. “Our goal by 2016 is to be one of the top five international carriers,” Leskow says. “That’s a pretty aggressive goal – pretty big, pretty bold. This [building] is more reflective of our vision for the future.”

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