Jeffrey G. Katz, a California native, was CEO of Swissair from April 1997 until June 2000. He was the first and, due to the grounding of Swissair in October 2001, the only foreign CEO Swissair ever had. After his rather sudden departure, not much was heard of him in Switzerland anymore. But Jeff Katz is still very much involved in the travel industry and shares with our readers what he does today, as well as a few thoughts on what happened with Swissair at the turn of the century.
Mr. Katz, when you left Swissair, rather abruptly, you joined Orbitz as founding member and Chairman. What was the decisive factor that made you pull through that move?
Jeff Katz: All at Swissair loved the company, its brand, and we cared about each other as colleagues. To be a member of that community was the single most powerful source of pride in a company that I have ever experienced. So, I miss the people and that was one of the hardest things for me about leaving. It was a privilege to work at Swissair and a privilege to spend nearly four years with my family living in Switzerland. I have many friends there today who remain important in my life. What was decisive in my departure decision was an opportunity to create and to lead Orbitz, then a new internet company that was backed by the entire US airline industry and its CEO’s. Indeed, Orbitz was a big success in the web-world in that decade, and my many colleagues, and a lot of luck, deserve all the credit for that.
Didn’t the burgeoning troubles at Swissair precipitate your decision?
Many of the tasks that I came to Swissair to implement had to do with adapting the airline for a largely deregulated European environment - new methods for running the company more competitively. As I considered my departure, these tasks had been or were on their way to being implemented, though that process never ends. So my departure timing, in many ways, felt appropriate.
It is also true that the SAirGroup strategy was one that I felt subordinated the Swissair brand in many ways, and even the blind and the deaf knew that about me. I did my best to alter our direction, but the Group strategy remained steadfastly unchanged. I had strong points of view about brand, network, alliances, and even how we were organized as a «Konzern» [editor's note: business group]. Some of these views chafed with the view of the «Konzernleitung» [editor's note: the top corporate management]. Or so I observed, and so the results indicated to me.
In summary, I left for opportunity, and even though it was not all bliss being at Swissair and SAirGroup, it was a sad decision for me to take. It was also the right decision for my family and for me.
«Some of my views chafed with the views of the top corporate management at SAirGroup»
In June 2006, you left the tourism/transportation world for good, apart from remaining a Board Member of Northwest for a few years. What made you go down that road?
I left travel for a number of years to work in the retail sector, to experience something different that was challenging. Ultimately, I remained deeply involved in the world of technology and the internet even in retail, and am now back in the travel industry in the technology area.
You are now with RR Donnelley. Can you quickly outline what this company is all about?
I am a board member at RR Donnelley, which is a 7-billion-Dollar company in the area of communications: Print, communication solutions, data, logistics. The largest in the world in this arena. The board’s role here is to help a very large company in a very traditional industry transform. I am also a board member at a large enterprise software firm, CA Technologies, which is based in New York City.
That doesn't sound like you are still involved in the travel industry...
Yes, I am still deeply involved in the travel industry. I am focused on data and its role as the new «currency» in the business. I’m involved in two new companies, one is called Journera and I am CEO there. At Journera we are creating a so-called experience management platform and our initial backers are American Airlines, United Airlines, Marriott Hotels, Hilton Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, Intercontinental Hotel Group, and Boston Consulting Group. It’s a very modern concept and time will tell if it becomes important in the industry, but I clearly think it will.
«At Journera we are developing a so-called 'Experience Management Platform'»
Do you still follow what’s going on within the airline industry, and with Swiss in particular?
I don’t follow Swiss or Europe specifically. I’m happy with my current travel industry involvement and its importance to the industry - not just airlines, but also hotels, ground transportation, and more. The airline industry is interesting, but the future of travel has less and less to do with airports and airplanes and more and more to do with the world’s interconnectedness. It may sound a bit futuristic, but our evolution will be very much about information, about self-guided vehicles - trains, aircraft, drones, automobiles -, as well as sharing, such as AirBnB and the like. Travel remains an infinitely large and infinitely interesting domain and I’m excited to be involved still.
That said: In my view, Swiss remains the world’s best airline and I fly it when I can. I think its association with Lufthansa Group and it’s alliance strategy is a position of great strength.
Former Swissair employees often stress how nice and approachable you were. How would you characterize your leadership style?
Well, to whomever was gracious enough to say those things about me, that is a very kind recollection. I am a listener, first and foremost. Like many managers, I have strong views as well, but through listening, learning, and collaborating I think great things can be accomplished. I was never a diplomat, though, that is for sure. Beyond being a good listener, I am never afraid to say what I think - based on all the data I can consume - and to take a reasoned decision quickly.
What do you think were your biggest achievements at Swissair?
My achievements at Swissair? Coffee mugs on Swissair flights! In all seriousness, we were a team and any accomplishments in terms of making a great brand and great airline adapt to a changing world, were those of my colleagues.
«At Swissair there were many good people that did their best during dramatically volatile and changing times.»
What are your thoughts concerning what happened to Swissair just 16 months after your departure?
In the wake of the unforeseeable events of September 2001, and the financial and business shock associated with these events, the strategy of SAirGroup left the «Konzern» substantially over-leveraged and the rest is well documented.This period leading up to and following «9/11» was an extremely fast-paced, dramatically changing, and very harsh business climate for the global industry. Consider the fact, as an example, that since September 2001, all but one US airline of the period have either been in bankruptcy or have disappeared. I won’t comment on all that transpired, but even under the best of circumstances leading up to «9/11», after the events, there were tragic consequences globally. Was the Group strategy flawed, and were there decisions taken that were wrong? It is unknowable and not useful, in my opinion, to opine on right and wrong in the case of Swissair’s experience during these times. It can always be said that there were many mistakes, but there were also many good people that did their best during dramatically volatile and changing times in the airline industry. We should not forget that.