Carolyn McCall's 3 biggest achievements as easyJet CEO

It's last call for McCall as she presents her final full year results at the airline.

by Arun Kakar
Last Updated: 21 Nov 2017

From being branded a ‘media luvvy’ by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary upon her appointment from the Guardian in 2010, McCall has left her doubters - and several of her competitors - in the dust, having been voted Britain’s most admired leader for two straight years in a free vote of her peers.

Here are three of McCall’s crowning achievements as easyJet boss.

1. Performance

When McCall stepped into the cockpit in July 2010, she found easyJet straining with delays. Shares slumped by as much as 7.1% in a single day as the airline over-rostered its staff to keep up with summer demand (sound familiar?).

Faced with the task of managing cancellations and increasing the morale of a frustrated workforce, McCall championed a leadership philosophy of being more interested in people than planeswhich fed into the company’s strategic objective of increasing money earned per passenger.

‘I didn’t know quite how bad things were operationally when I took the job,’ McCall said at the Fortune most powerful women summit in 2015. ‘For the first year or 18 months, we had to keep reminding ourselves how good the business model is. If we lost sight of that, we would have lost hope.’

Whatever she did, it worked.

After reviewing the company’s capital structure and beginning to target business class flyers, McCall delivered with a 6% rise in revenue per seat and an 8% increase in flyers for the final quarter of that year. Full year revenues for 2010 duly rose 11.5% to £2.97 bn.

The company continued to grow in a period when many other European airlines were still struggling to recover from the financial crisis. McCall has now presided over six straight years of growth, topped off by bringing passenger numbers to record highs of 80.2 million in 2017 (they were 49.7 million the year she arrived).

This has led to revenues rising 70% over the 2010-17 period to £5.05bn, and pre-tax profits rising 162% to £403m.

2. From boss to role model

As one of seven female FTSE 100 CEOs, McCall’s continued success has made her a role model. She was named as one of Britain’s 100 most powerful women by Radio Four and was appointed a Dame in 2016’s New Year’s honours for services to the aviation industry.

One of her more admirable feats was keeping her company’s outspoken founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou in his box. Long critical of her expansion plans, he quit the board in 2010 in an attempt to stop her decision to target a higher market share of 10% (it was 7% then; now it’s 15%).

'My job is to keep our people focused on what we do. It is not personal and we don't let it get in the way of delivery,’ McCall told MT when quizzed about how she dealt with Haji-Ioannou’s demands. ‘I won't allow myself to be distracted.'

Words became action when McCall pushed ahead with plans to purchase 135 new Airbuses in 2013, despite his protests. There was also the controversial moment in 2014 when Haji-Ioannou voted against McCall’s £6.5m pay packet, despite having just delivered a 51% growth in profit and a record shareholder dividend payout in 2013 of £308m. It didn’t work. Sometimes, you’ve just got to stick it to the man. 

3. Piloting through turbulent times 

In her last year as CEO, McCall has encountered a fair bit of turbulence. Profits have fallen 17% despite the rise in passenger numbers in what McCall has called a ‘difficult year for the aviation industry. The company took a £101m hit from the fall in Sterling that made dollar-priced fuel more expensive, and its bottom line was hurt by increasing competition cutting prices.

You can argue that McCall has left easyJet in relatively good stead when Johan Lundgren takes over in January, with shares rallying to support a positive outlook.  The company has consolidated its European presence to brace for the post-Brexit airfield, buying £35m of assets from the insolvent Air Berlin at Berlin Tegel airport.

Easyjet will also take on 1,000 German staff and crew too and this year announced plans to set up an Austrian HQ to enable the carrier to operate flights within the EU. With McCall leaving, the outlook looks pretty positive: easyJet is likely to benefit from the collapse of Monarch which gives it the edge on many key routes, and unlike rival Ryanair, it’s not in the middle of a flight cancellation spree/PR storm.

ITV will surely hope she maintains her soaring ways.

Image credit: nkrbeta/Wikimedia Commons

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