By Richard Hadden
You'll forgive me if this month's Fresh Milk seems to
read with a slight accent. I'm writing it from my
Scottish brother-in-law's home in the English village
of Rolvenden Layne, an hour south of London, having
spent nearly three weeks (glorious weeks, I might
add) in Scotland and England, with a wee side trip to
Germany. Other than checking email most every day
(a daunting task in the Scottish Highlands), just
about the only "work" I've done on this vacation has
been to make some observations, a few of which I'd
like to share here.
As a Scot-by-marriage, I've been visiting the UK fairly
regularly for nearly twenty years. But this time,
before boarding Virgin Atlantic's flight 50 from Orlando
to Gatwick, I firmly implanted in my mind this
question, "When it comes to the workplace, and
leadership, and their impact on business, does
the 'people thing' work any differently in, say, the UK
than in the more familiar (to me) territory of North
I flew three airlines on the trip. Richard Branson's
Virgin Atlantic for the transatlantic legs; budget
carrier easy Jet between London and Edinburgh; and
Ireland-based RyanAir between Scotland and
Virgin has a reputation for being not only good to its
customers, but to its employees as well. IRS take
note - I did some bona fide research on the trip,
asking two of the Virgin Atlantic flight attendants
what they thought about the "deal" working for
Virgin. I think I've been doing this long enough to
know when I'm getting a "line", and when the
enthusiasm is genuine. This was the real thing.
"I've never worked for a firm where I've been treated
so professionally," said Dalton, mid-20's, looked like
he stepped off a London fashion billboard. "There's a
definite sense of pride working for Virgin. They treat
us with a certain amount of 'polish', I'd say, and I
think that rubs off on our customers. Or at least I
hope it does."
I assured him it did.
Marlene, an attractive Jamaican, echoed Dalton's
thoughts (in a much cooler accent, though). "I used
to work for another airline. The difference is like night
and day. This is like my dream job."
It's impossible to know which came first (as in
chicken or egg), but Virgin reported last fiscal year's
pre-tax profits of £68 million ($123 million), the
highest since 1999. I'm not saying there's a
connection, but. . . Despite rising fuel costs, Virgin
has managed to do something no full-fare American
carrier has pulled off since the years started with a
2. And as a result of Virgin's continued successful
performance, its workforce will get a profit-related
bonus for the third year in a row.
My experience on easy Jet was different. This carrier
has been compared to the US's Southwest Airlines.
Cheap fares, open seating, no frills. But the
comparison falls apart, at least in my very limited
experience, when you factor in the respective
airlines' employees. I've seen undertakers who were
having more fun at work than the easy Jetters I
encountered. (Please - no angry emails from funeral
professionals. It was a joke.) When I raised an
objection (in the politest of tones - really) to a gate
agent about what I saw as a minor service failure,
the agent retorted, "Well you don't need to fly easy
Jet, then, do you?"
I guess he put me in my place - Ugly American that I
am. But I couldn't let it go. I asked him, "Do you like
your job?", he paused, and actually reflected for a
moment, putting a great deal more thought into his
response than into the snort that gave rise to the
question, saying, "Not particularly."
In the six months ending March 31, 2005, easy Jet
lost £31 million ($56 million). I'm not saying there's a
connection, but. . .
Then, in stark contrast to easy Jet, the RyanAir staff
were all smiles. For the same cheap fare, they got me
from Glasgow, Scotland (well, Prestwick, really, about
an hour away) to Dusseldorf, Germany (well, Weeze,
really, about an hour away) cheaply, safely, and with
the greatest professionalism, joy, and mirth.
It won't surprise you, and it didn't surprise me, that
RyanAir earned 273 million Euros ($331 million) last
I'm not saying there's a connection, but. . .
While I will make all the disclaimers you would expect
with respect to cause and effect, it's hard not
to notice that, at least in my limited experience, the
two companies that treated me well and seem to
have happy employees also have happy shareholders.
The other one isn't making anyone happy at the
moment. Interestingly, easy Jet's CEO, Ray Webster,
just announced his departure, so he can spend more
time with his family (where have we heard that one
before?) And who can blame him? I don't know Mr.
Webster's family, but they'd have to be a jollier lot
than his employees.
But perhaps the clearest answer to my original
question came at a fish and chip carry-out in a stout
working-class neighborhood in Glasgow. A
Glasgow "chippie" is as colorful as a New York deli,
and this one lived up to the reputation of the genre.
Apparently the shop had just finished serving a
healthy rush of customers, when we walked in a half-
hour before its midnight closing time. (Bill can't
believe that I postponed dinner until 11:30, but I did.
Long story.) We ordered four "fish suppers", all of
which were prepared fresh. While we waited, I
chatted with the shop manager, Archie, a young, but
well-worn strawberry blond Glaswegian man
whose "patter" (the distinctive Glasgow dialect)
would have been only slightly more intelligible had he
still had his full issue of teeth. Only because my wife
has tutored me in the language over the last twenty
years was I able to carry on a conversation with him
Without making any mention of what I do for a living,
I simply asked Archie if they'd been having a busy
night. "Aye, no hauf!" he allowed, which I knew
meant, "Yes, indeed, and not just halfway." He went
on to volunteer, "See these lassies?" referring to the
two young women who were busily frying the
potatoes and haddock, and making preparations to
close the kitchen for the night. "Wee Fiona was
supposed to leave at half-past-nine, (I'm translating
here), "but we got so busy she volunteered to stay
until closing. We couldn't have done without her."
My mind immediately turned to the idea of
Discretionary Effort, and I went into consulting mode,
asking why, in Archie's opinion, Fiona had taken the
initiative to stay to help. Working in a Glasgow
chippie is hot, hard, greasy work, a job which an
eighteen-year-old woman would be happy to leave at
9:30 on a Saturday night.
"Oh, we try to take pretty good care of each other
around here. You don't find many people want to
work in a chippie these days. See the likes of yon
golden arches over there?" he said pointing to the
famous icon across the street. The kids today would
rather work there. I guess it's easier, and
more 'glamorous'," he said, using those annoying
finger quotes he must have learned from watching
American TV. "Me? I tell 'em they'll have a better
time working for the 'Golden Archie'," he laughed,
pointing to both his hair and his name tag.
"Och, I've worked at those places," said Fiona. "It's
no' the same. Here we all pitch in and help each
other. I don't mind staying, 'cause I know these two
would do the same for me. And they have."
With that, I had my fish and chips, and the answer to
my question. Whether on this side of the pond or the
other, people want to be respected, treated like
professionals, to have some fun at work, and know
that somebody cares about them and will help them
out when they need it. With those needs met, and
maybe a few others, good people will pitch in, do
good work, and bring in the earnings for their
It doesn't get much simpler than that.