I once quit a new job after one day. As crazy as that was, I've always thought: At least I can say I've never been fired.

Only it turns out, maybe getting fired isn't so terrible. 

I realized this recently after listening to an in-depth interview with an aviation entrepreneur who's been fired from two of the most-loved airlines in America--including one that he founded himself. 

Now, he's plotting a course to come back, and the story behind it all is pretty darn inspiring.

'It's not going to work'

This is the story of David G. Neeleman. Born in Brazil and raised in Utah, he co-founded an airline called Morris Air in the late 1980s, and was president when it was acquired by Southwest Airlines in December 1993.

He was 34 then and he came away with about $22 million. But more than that, Neeleman was thrilled because he'd built Morris Air based on Southwest's model, and he dreamed of one day succeeding its CEO, Herb Kelleher. 

A Mormon, he'd viewed Southwest as such a paragon of corporate virtue that Kelleher joked that he owned three books: his Bible, his Book of Mormon, and the Southwest Airlines annual report.

But, just five months after the sale, Kelleher fired him.

As Neeleman tells it, with 25 years of context, he wasn't a great fit at Southwest. He'd brought an "absolutely paranoid," startup sensibility to Southwest -- which was a stable company that with many years of consecutive profit behind it at that point. 

But still, it hurt big-time to be fired, ​Neeleman recalled recently on a recent episode of NPR's podcast, How I Built This With Guy Raz.

"Herb invited me to the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Dallas," Neelman said. "And he said, this isn't going to work. You're driving everyone insane. ... He reached across the table and held my hands. I was crying. ... 'Even the people that are your biggest supporters said I had to let you go.'"

'Absolutely the wrong decision'

Neeleman was truly devastated. But he was also motivated.

A noncompete agreement prevented him from working for another domestic airline, but he consulted for Canada's WestJet, and started to plan a new airline based largely on some of the things that had made Southwest successful.

That airline became JetBlue. For seven years, from 2000 to 2007, it was a giant success.

Then, in in February 2007, bad weather and operations failures led to disaster for the airline over five days, including 1,000 canceled flights and hundreds of passengers stranded on its airplanes.

Neelman went on a marathon apology tour, promising that JetBlue would do better. But, a few months later, he was fired .

"It was not only devastating, but it was just absolutely the wrong decision," Needleman said. "My office was just off the boardroom and two of the board members came in and said, this is what we're going to do. And then they all got up and left."

'I picked up the pieces'

Independently wealthy with a large family (10 kids), I think a lot of people in Neeleman's position would have stepped back. But the inspiring part of the story comes next.

He headed to Brazil, where he'd served as a missionary when he was 19, and launched yet another airline: a low-cost carrier called Azul Brazilian Airlines (Azul is the Portugese word for "blue"), which grew into the nation's third-largest airline.

"I picked up the pieces, went to Brazil, and took 10 people from JetBlue with me," Neeleman told Business Insider earlier this year. "Sometimes one door closes and another one opens, and you can do a lot of good with that."

Even as Azul was credited with doubling the number of Brazilian domestic air passengers, Neeleman kept had his eye on the U.S. market. When he flew into JFK, he said, "it'd be hard to even look over at JetBlue. It was hard to even see my airline."

So, last year, Neeleman announced his plans to launch yet another U.S. airline, called at least for now, Moxy. He's reportedly raised $100 million and signed a Memorandum of Understanding to buy 60 Airbus A220-300 aircraft before starting operations in 2021.

The next thing

At this point, Neeleman is three-for-three as an airline founder -- an incredibly difficult business. That doesn't count ​WestJet; include him as a founder there, and he's four-for-four.

He's also zero-for-two, however, in terms of having been fired twice from big, public airlines.

Neeleman makes a lot of having been diagnosed with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, and I think he'd agree that might have something to do with it. But there's also the fact that sometimes, bold, entrepreneurial leaders just aren't suited for staid, established organizations.

Sometimes, that means being fired isn't a black mark on your resume.

But sometimes, it's a feather in your cap.

It hurts, and it can be financially difficult -- for some people, it's exactly what they need to inspire you to go forward--and to create something even better.

Published on: Jun 16, 2019
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