WestJet president & CEO, Gregg Saretsky says he's “not the man who sits in the ivory tower in Calgary”

Gregg Saretsky

Offering a glimpse into his life, 25-year industry veteran and president & CEO of WestJet Airlines, Gregg Saretsky, talks to about how he went from making plans for medical school to managing one of Canada’s largest airlines.

The troublemaker in the family

Spending the early part of his childhood in Châteauguay, Quebec, an off-island suburb of Montréal, and later moving to Vancouver in 1969, Saretsky was born the middle child in a family of five, which included three brothers and a sister.

“You know what they say about the middle child right? They’re the trouble maker in the family,” Saretsky quipped.

Always one for fun, Saretsky recalls spending summer days at the neighbourhood swimming hole with his three brothers. Thinking back to his childhood and his dreams of flying, Saretsky said: “I would get on my bicycle with my two older brothers and the three of us would drive off. We would put a big piece of plywood across our bicycles and those would be our wings.”

A young Saretsky with his siblings

Coincidentally, Saretsky’s two older brothers are also working in the airline business, but as captains - one for Air Canada and the other for Cathay Pacific.

Although his younger siblings work outside of the travel industry, Saretsky told that the interesting mix of personalities and the friendly competition between siblings makes for interesting conversation when the family gets together during the holidays.

A few years after meeting his wife Debb at an airline dance while she was working at Canadian Pacific and he with Air Canada, Saretsky started his own family. Married for 25 years, the couple has three children - 24-year-old fraternal twins Mark and Jennifer and 16-year-old son, Bobby.

With a passion for adventure and having visited 235 cities on six continents, Saretsky always hoped that his kids would see as much of the world as he has. He set a family goal, aiming for his children to visit six continents by the time they turned 21 – and they have.

From Air Canada to WestJet…

A young Saretsky with his Air Canada crew members
Although Saretsky has always had a self-professed love for travel, he did not originally expect to end up working in the airline industry. While attending university, Saretsky worked as a flight attendant with Air Canada, paying his soon-to-be wife’s way through college. He spent three years at the airline, taking off in the fall to go back to school. In his last year of university he decided to get his MBA, as a “way to open doors in the business world.” While studying for his MBA he was employed as a customer service agent at Vancouver international for two years, working for Ward Air.

“You can say, I was bitten early by the travel industry,” he said.

After completing his undergraduate degree in biochemistry and microbiology at the University of B.C., he intended to go to medical school and become a doctor. But, before he even started post-grad studies, “All the years of science [ahead] made me change my mind,” Saretsky said.

Gregg Saretsky and wife Debb
“I have no regrets – but sometimes I think I am a doctor in this business,” he quipped.

After Ward Air, he decided to change directions and worked at the Bank of Montreal as a commercial lending branch agent. “Not a fun time to be in banking,” Saretsky soon returned to the travel industry after being “wooed away” by an opportunity to join Canadian Airlines in 1985, where he worked in the planning and finance department.

Leaving in 1997, Saretsky looks back at his time spent with Canadian as an “opportunity to work with a variety of VPs and work on their business models, which gave me exposure to all the aspects of the airline [industry] and some of those operating branches, as well as sink my teeth into the airline business.”

Soon after getting this “real taste” for the industry and loving it, Saretsky was recruited by Alaska Air to work as vice president of marketing and planning, later being promoted to executive vice president of marketing and planning. He lived and worked in Seattle for 11 years, right up until he made his way back to Canada and into the open arms of WestJet Vacations in June 2009.

“WestJet proved everyone wrong”

Having been working with Canadian Airlines when WestJet first started in 1996, Saretsky admitted to closely watching the airline emerge and flourish.

“Looking at this new competitor in the west - in our backyard – I remember thinking ‘this business is such a tough business, there is no way WestJet is going to make it,’” he recalled. “And, I think our domestic competitors thought the same at that time.”

The Saretsky family
“WestJet proved everyone wrong. From that first day, it has been one of those projects that you watch from the sidelines. They made all the right moves, growing like crazy, winning all kinds of awards and turning out record profits. Who’s not to be attracted by that, especially a guy who spent 25 years in the industry?” he added.

After making the move from WestJet Vacations and becoming the president and CEO of WestJet Airlines earlier this year, Saretsky said that although he is not interested in changing the company dramatically while in his new role, he is trying to put his “own touch on things.”

For example, he has been working to build WestJet’s relationships and also plans to continue to build the airline’s connectivity, “protecting [the WestJet] culture and making it grow.”

Not the man in the ivory tower

The Saretsky family hits the slopes
To keep in touch with his product and guests, Saretsky has visited every province and territory throughout Canada. He has almost reached his first professional goal of visiting all 31 WestJet Canadian stations, seeing as many WestJetters in their environment, which is something that has brought him even closer to his goal of making sure he is “not the man who sits in the ivory tower in Calgary,” he explained.

In addition to making himself available to tag bags or check in guests during a busy day at the airport, Saretsky is not one to shy away from every aspect of the airline business and admitted that he still makes time to have fun.

“That’s part of the WestJet culture,” Saretsky told “WestJetters know how to have a good time. When I work, I work l hard, but when I am off, I play hard too. We all come to work to make WestJet a great place and provide a great guest experience. As senior leaders, we have to help set the tone. It would be a little two faced to say, ‘we want you to do this with our guests,’ but then never do it ourselves. It is really important that we are out there and are visible.”

Q&A with Gregg...
What was one of your first jobs?
Gregg Saretsky:  Making pizza at Tom’s House of Pizza. They are headquartered in Calgary and still alive and kicking. If you could meet one person, dead or alive, who would it be?
GS: Ghandi If you had a travel survival kit, what would be in it?
GS: An axe

Saretsky at the Great Wall of China
If they made a movie of your life, who would play you?
GS: Robert Redford  What words so you live by?
GS: Remember, this will reflect If you could give advice to your 19-year-old self, what would it be?
GS: Remember to have fun along the way If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?
GS: Warren Buffet Who do you admire most in the industry?
GS: Tony Fernandes, CEO of Air Asia would like to thank Gregg Saretsky for his time and cooperation.