Ray Webster, the chief executive of the no-frills airline easyJet for the past nine years, stunned the aviation world yesterday by announcing his retirement for family reasons.
The shock statement was accompanied by the news that easyJet's founder and former chairman Stelios Haji-Ioannou would be rejoining the board as a non-executive director with immediate effect.
Mr Webster, who worked for Air New Zealand for 28 years before joining easyJet in 1996, is widely regarded as the brains behind the airline, having designed the yield management system which sits at the heart of its low-cost model.
He intends to resign from the board as soon as a successor is found but has agreed to continue in a consultancy role until November next year before severing his ties entirely.
Mr Webster, 58, said his time at easyJet had been the highlight of his career but that it had come at a heavy personal cost. He has decided to step down so he can spend more time with his family after the recent death of his parents.
He said: "For the company, it is the right time to step down. For me, it is two years too late. I have lost my mother and my father this year and that really accelerated my decision. I had hoped to spend a couple of years with them. I have a nine-year-old grandson and since he was born I have spent three days with him, which is appalling. I love the outdoors and I would love to take him and my two other grandchildren camping whilst I am still able to. Over the next decade, it is important to protect myself and my family."
Mr Webster said he and his Parisian wife would continue to be based in London, where he hopes to build up a portfolio of non-executive and consultancy jobs. But easyJet would be his last full-time executive role, allowing him to spend more time in his native New Zealand and Australia. He said it was unlikely that he would work for another airline in any capacity.
His successor will be chosen from outside easyJet and will not necessarily be expected to have a background in aviation. Mr Webster said headhunters had already been appointed and he hoped a replacement would be in place by the end of this calendar year. One of the main challenges for his successor will be to contend with the presence on the board of the company's founder and biggest shareholder. Stelios, who together with members of his family still owns 41 per cent of the airline, was forced to step down as chairman in November 2002 after a revolt by institutional shareholders.
The protest began at the annual shareholder meeting the previous February when the Co-operative Insurance Society objected to easyJet's biggest shareholder also being chairman. Institutional investors were further angered by an attempt by Stelios to change the company's rules to give him the power to appoint the chairman and two non-executives in the future.
Ian Jones of the CIS said it was quite happy to see Stelios back as a non-executive. But he added that easyJet should now take the opportunity to increase the number of independent directors on the board.
Amir Eilon, a former investment banker and close associate of Stelios, who joined the board in 1999 before easyJet's flotation and acts as his representative, will resign at the AGM next February. Stelios said he expected it to be "business as usual" and reiterated his position that he had "no current intention" to take the company private.Reuse content