My Trip From Laid Off to Lift Off Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic Tells His Remarkable Story

Reading Time: 8 minutes

In this Exclusive Interview Shai Reveals: His inspiring journey from jobless to CEO of VA, his 3 key tenets of success, the inside story behind the London-Tel Aviv launch, VA’s amazing plans for the future and direct insights into Richard Branson’s success.

David Citron: My subscribers are generally entrepreneurs and achievers, always looking for lessons and strategies. What were your biggest personal/professional turning points and greatest lessons en-route to your phenomenal current leadership position? 

Shai Weiss: When it comes to lessons learned and giving advice, I have three tenets. The first is that people should take risks. There’s a quote from Sheryl Sandberg which I often use: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.” Sheryl has had her fair share of knocks and bumps, but she’s now a hugely successful billionaire so knows what she’s talking about.

In my own career I’ve faced my own challenges: I’ve been terrible at a couple of things, I’ve failed, I’ve even been laid off, but I’ve always maintained a positive outlook. I’ve taken multiple risks, so I knew I was always going to fail at something, but always understood that you learn from the experience, that these things happen, and that with hard work I would eventually succeed.

The second tenet is that you should always make sure that you’re being useful. When I lost my job earlier in my career, I only had enough money in the bank to stay in the UK for three months.

So, I applied for a new one as a head-hunter, on an unpaid six-month contract. I decided that if I did a good job, it would eventually end up paying me back somehow. But I didn’t actually get the job, and ended up getting one that entailed working on one-day assignments. People would call me up and tell me they had a problem of some sort, and I had to go in and help them solve it.

The first contract I had was only supposed to last a day, so I went in, made myself useful, helping a team on a valuation project which they’d gotten pretty wrong. That one day ended up becoming a five-year role at NTL, which then became Virgin Media, which got me to where I am today at Virgin Atlantic.

The third tenet is to be curious. You should always want to learn about what’s going on around you and what people are up to. I’ve got a reputation for being very detail-oriented. My teams know they’ve got to come to me with all the facts. This isn’t because I’m a micromanager – it’s because I’m genuinely interested in whatever it is they’re talking to me about. With curiosity and a love of human beings you’ll discover things that are amazing.

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David Citron: Just like you said you would in a Forbes interview near the beginning of 2019, you have gone ahead and set up the route from Heathrow to Tel Aviv. What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome to make this route happen and how did you deal with these? 

Shai Weiss: All our routes pose different types of challenges, which we embrace in a variety of ways. From business customers heading to Asia to leisure customers taking holidays in the Caribbean, we know that they all come to us with different expectations – but that we’re expected to offer the irresistible, effortless Virgin Atlantic experience that we’re famous for. To become the most loved travel company, we have to make sure we offer experiences that are loved by everyone.

Tel Aviv was going to be no exception to this – we knew we were looking at a mixture of point to point leisure and business customers, and the large Israel-US travel market, which is around 200,000 people a month. Connecting via London only adds 0.1% to the distance (11km) and our current connections are just over three hours longer than a nonstop flight. On top of this, many of our new customers were going to be Jewish, so we had to offer an experience that catered to the sensitivities and expectations of that community.

We really wanted to make sure our products and service differentiated us from other airlines on the route. New cultural training has been introduced for our crew, and a big group of them was sent on an immersive experience exploring a local Kosher supermarket, a synagogue and the Jewish Learning Exchange in Golders Green, a north London neighbourhood that’s home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. They met members of the community to talk about their beliefs, culture, what is important to them, and why. All of this has built in an understanding and sensitivity to aspects of Jewish culture our crew will be looking after. 

To really celebrate Israel’s rich culture, the on-board experience was tailored on the new service – offering locally inspired cuisine created by innovative London restaurant The Good Egg.  Our customers can look forward to dishes celebrating Tel Aviv’s street food culture all prepared using high quality ingredients sourced from sustainable and ethical producers.  

All of this has helped ensure our crew truly understand and can connect with customers flying the route, anticipate their needs and create a superior experience for each person. That is what enables us to differentiate the service we’re famed for delivering for our customers. I’m from Israel myself so have flown the route a couple of times now, and I think we’ve really done it.

David Citron: What are your biggest goals in order to grow the company financials in 2020-25?

Shai Weiss: When I became CEO in January 2019, we launched our new three-year business plan aptly named Velocity. Our vision is clear – to become the most loved travel company and assume our position as Britain’s second flag carrier – and to do this as the sustainability leader in our industry. Our people and our customers remain absolutely at the core of everything we do. And it is our unparalleled focus on both that drives an inherent customer preference for Virgin Atlantic. 

The plan anchors around translating this preference into purchase by removing the impediments that prevent customers from choosing to fly or book holidays with us. These are price, loyalty, and network – and we’ve already taken bold actions on all three:     

On price – in March 2018 we successfully introduced three new ways to fly in Economy. recognising that customers want more choice, flexibility, and yes, the lowest fares but without compromising on service.  

On loyalty – together with the Virgin Group we are setting up Virgin Red, a new Virgin-wide loyalty programme, with unique and differentiated opportunities to reward customer loyalty across Virgin branded companies and beyond. Bringing together the likes of Virgin Money, Virgin Media and others on to one loyalty platform which is so much more than just miles.  

On network we are transforming from a point to point carrier to a network carrier. We are afounding member of the new transatlantic joint venture with Delta, Air France and KLM – with joint revenues of $13bn.

When we go live in January it will be the preferred option for passengers travelling across the Atlantic offering competitive fares, the most comprehensive route network, convenient flight schedules and reciprocal frequent flyer benefits, including the ability to earn and redeem miles across carriers. And as part of a consortium with Stobart Group and Cyrus Capital, we acquired Flybe and keep it flying, protecting 2,400 jobs and securing the future of Europe’s largest regional airline.

We continue to focus our efforts on working with Flybe to transform its business. We are in the midst of a major turnaround of Flybe’s business, and following recent announcements, welcome support offered by the UK government.

We look forward to bringing the business back to profitability and ensuring that Europe’s largest regional airline continues to fly. Rebranding next year as Virgin Connect, together we’re going to deliver more choice to customers by linking the whole country to our long-haul network, through improved connectivity at Heathrow and Manchester.  

And we’re focusing on growth through expanding our network once again at Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow. This year we cemented our position as the leading long-haul carrier in Manchester – adding 20% more capacity and a new route to Los Angeles. At Gatwick we will be launching a daily flight to New York-JFK next summer and Delta will start a new service to Boston. 

At our hub at Heathrow we are expanding our rest of world network, enhancing competition and helping businesses large and small to connect to key markets, including the launch of our daily services to Mumbai and Tel Aviv. And from March, we fly to South America for the first time with our new daily service to São Paulo.  

Doing all this will create amazing opportunities for our people, and our customers. But we know that these come with tremendous responsibilities to the planet the communities we serve, which is why another goal of mine is building our role in business as a force for good.

We’re reinforcing our commitment to those communities with the launch of Passport to Change: an extra-curricular STEM – based programme for students delivered by our charity partner WE, aiming to empower the next generation. The programme is currently up and running in Atlanta, Crawley and Swansea.

We’re also acutely aware of the climate crisis and have three areas of focus that we know will reduce our carbon emissions. These include investments in sustainable aviation fuels, upgrading our fleet to the latest, fuel-efficient aircraft, and the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) agreed by UN body ICAO and countries around the world.

With relentless focus on our growth plans and a commitment to doing business for good, we’re going to have more people, flying to more places, on our planes than ever before.  

David Citron: What have you learnt about business from working with Richard Branson? Please tell us any stories you experienced with him which we can learn from too. 

Shai Weiss: I formed a quick connection with Richard Branson when I first encountered him in 2004. I was working for NTL:Telewest at the time and I suggested that we bought one of his companies, Virgin Mobile, to re-brand the cable company to fight against the onslaught of Sky and BT. I was inspired by him right from the start.

Richard has some amazing qualities. First and foremost, he has an uncanny ability to understand the zeitgeist, and understand what is really important to people in consumer-facing industries. He has an unparalleled read of what’s important to customers – existing and future – and translates these insights into reality.

Secondly, he is a brilliant risk-taker. I think the way in which Virgin launches new ventures makes many people think he is frivolous or makes sudden decisions. The reality is that he makes calculated decisions. He knows exactly what he’s doing – and is always ready to accept the failure that comes with risk. A great example of this is Virgin Voyages, his new cruise business which launches its first ship next year. I remember him showing me sketches for his vision for Virgin Voyages back when we met in 2004 – 15 years ago.

And finally, he claims not to be a great executive, but he knows how to hire and trust brilliant leaders to get on with business. He has a real passion for creating teams of amazing and passionate people. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t get involved in the direction of things, but he rarely comes to our board meetings, for example, because he really believes in the capabilities of his people.

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  • Timmy

    Reply Reply February 18, 2020

    Superb piece – love the tenets of success the most, very inspirational, thank you both!

    • David Citron

      Reply Reply February 18, 2020

      Thanks Timmy! Glad you gained from it.

  • Michael Rose

    Reply Reply February 18, 2020

    Powerful rags to riches storyline – some great ideas here, also liked the cultural training given for the new route, thanks Shai and David

    • David Citron

      Reply Reply February 18, 2020

      Welcome Michael, thanks for reading!

  • Vanessa S

    Reply Reply February 18, 2020

    This is a great interview! I love how he pays so much attention to all the details even though he’s running a multibillion£ company

    • David Citron

      Reply Reply February 18, 2020

      Thanks Vanessa! That’s a great point – truly remarkable

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