It’s almost 10 a.m. and David Neeleman just finished his eighth run on the Mountaineer lift. Not bad, since the lifts open at 9.
He’s got appointments and meetings starting at 10, so it will have to go at that. But he looked out the window when he woke up, saw a half-foot of fresh powder and couldn’t think of a single reason why he shouldn’t track it up.
His ski-in, ski-out Deer Valley house is next to the lift, which makes it convenient, and in true Neeleman fashion, he has the drill down: 3 ½ minutes for the lift ride, a little over a minute to go downhill — so five minutes per run, give or take, with no breaks.
Welcome to the perpetual motion world of David Neeleman, a man who never met a laurel he wanted to rest on.
Here he is, at 61, his position already preserved as the Steve Jobs of the airline industry — a national publication called him “Lord of the Skies” — with a net worth of $400 million according to Forbes, with 10 children and 24 grandchildren and two on the way and all sorts of stories to tell them about how their grandfather launched four major airlines and helped rescue another one, on three continents no less; not to mention inventing ticketless travel and the home reservation system.
And yet here he is, about to launch his fifth airline, this one right back home in Utah, where it all began.
Ask him why, and he’ll tell you it’s for two simple reasons: When he sees a niche he likes to fill it, and he loves to make life better for people. That’s the motivation that created Morris Air, WestJet, JetBlue and Azul, all of them airlines that went where others didn’t and did things others wouldn’t.
And that’s the motivation behind Breeze, his new airline headquartered along the Wasatch Front in Cottonwood Heights scheduled to open this summer that will connect regional cities and “fly where people don’t fly,” in addition to revolutionizing the flight attendant industry and setting new standards in being “nice.”
He probably couldn’t stop if he tried.
Almost 40 years ago, he was working toward a degree at the University of Utah when he took the first of the many detours that have defined his career. You might say his secret to success is getting bankrupted, laid off or fired.
He was in his second year at the university just another business major looking to get started on his first million, when a classmate told him about a relative who was having trouble selling timeshares at a condo project he owned in Honolulu. That set Neeleman’s mind to whirling: If they’re just sitting empty, why not rent the condos until they’re sold?
He took out an ad in the newspaper (this was 1981, people did that back then) offering Hawaii condos for $50 to $75 a night. When it turned out there was a healthy market for the rentals, Neeleman upped the ante and partnered with airlines and hotels to create low-cost Hawaiian getaway packages. He also dropped out of school. There was money to make and deals to be made.
That’s how the entrepreneurial force that is David Neeleman began. It was the public’s first glimpse into his ability to look at what everyone else was looking at and see opportunities and improvements no else could see.
Legacy of success
He wasn’t the first Neeleman to act like this, nor the last. The family tree is full of stories of innovation, overachieving and never slowing down.
David’s younger brother Stephen, for example, built from scratch Draper-based HealthEquity, the largest health care savings plan in the nation; his father, Gary, rose from cub reporter to the top echelons of United Press International — and today at 87 remains Brazilian Honorary Consul for Utah and with his wife, Rose, is working on their 13th book; and you may have heard of his nephew Zach Wilson, his sister Lisa and husband Mike Wilson’s son, the expected high first-round NFL draft pick this year despite being a lightly recruited quarterback out of high school — to list just a few of many examples.
But to get to the original high-energy source you have to go back to John “Johnny” Neeleman, David’s grandfather.
Born in 1911 to Dutch immigrants who arrived in Utah with their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the catalyst that brought them here, and little else, John Neeleman went from nothing to own and operate no less than nine businesses in his lifetime, among them a chain of stores he called Miniature Markets.
Today they’d be called convenience stores. But in 1951 nobody knew that term because Johnny Neeleman had just invented the concept.
He had noticed that large supermarket chains were driving the traditional corner markets out of business. His idea was to create a store that would be open at all hours and conveniently provide everything anyone needed, including freshly made sandwiches.
The first Miniature Market on 600 South and State Street was such a hit he opened two more, one on 3300 South and another on Highland Drive. The all-day, all-night business’ reputation spread to the point that the national magazine Argosy sent a reporter and photographer to Salt Lake City to do a feature story on “the biggest little store in America.”
Gary Neeleman remembers his father’s reaction to the national publicity.
“I said, ‘Isn’t that great?’” says Gary.
“He said, ‘Son, I’m madder than hell about it. Now everybody will want to take my idea.”
He was right. Soon, men from the Southland Corp. in Texas walked into Neeleman’s store and started asking questions: Where do you get the bread for your sandwiches? How much business do you get in the evening? How do you rotate your stock?
The Southland Corp. owned a small number of stores in the Dallas area called 7-Eleven.
“It wasn’t long after that that 7-Eleven stores were everywhere,” says Gary — including just down the street from the Miniature Markets. (Incidentally, the 3300 South Miniature Market is still going strong; it is owned by Mike and Lisa Wilson, the quarterback’s parents, who make hundreds of fresh sandwiches every morning.)
Like all his brothers and sisters, David Neeleman worked at his grandpa’s stores. He started when he was 9 and had to stand on a milk crate to see over the counter. From there he had a front-row seat to his grandfather’s tremendous work ethic — “That guy could not sit still,” says David — and a fixation on customer service that bordered on obsession.
“His theme was, ‘Our customers are right even when they’re wrong,’” says Gary.
“When a customer came in the store and asked for something we didn’t have, he’d say, ‘Here, have a donut and cup of coffee,’ and stall them while I’d run out the back door to the Safeway and get what they wanted,” remembers David. “He really focused on customers and making them happy. He never wanted to lose a customer.”
Up in the air
David Neeleman’s Hawaii condo rental package enterprise was a roaring success — until it wasn’t.
All was going great until Hawaiian Express, the airline David partnered with to provide transportation between L.A. and Honolulu, went out of business without warning and filed for bankruptcy. David’s company was doing $6 million annually, but it was cash poor. Unable to reimburse customers for tickets already bought and paid for, he, too, was forced to take out bankruptcy. He learned the hard way about having unreliable partners and insufficient reserves, and now, at 23, he was back at square one — working for his grandfather at Miniature Markets, minus the milk crate.
But not for long.
June Morris, a woman who had built Morris Travel into one of Salt Lake’s most successful travel agencies, had watched David’s innovative genius with the Hawaiian rentals. Maybe he could do something similar for her.
Anyone who was in Salt Lake City in the 1980s is familiar with the rest of the story. With David at the controls, Morris Travel transformed into Morris Air, featuring $399 weeklong Salt Lake-to-Hawaii travel packages and $69 fares to Los Angeles. No one had ever offered something this affordable and convenient.
The masses gobbled it up like manna. By the time he was 27, David paid off the mortgage on his house. By the time he was 33, Southwest Airlines swooped in and bought Morris Air for $130 million. David’s share was $25 million, plus an executive position with Southwest Airlines.
On paper, it was everything the young entrepreneur had dreamed of. He had more money than he’d ever need and now he’d get to work with Southwest founder Herb Kelleher, the man Neeleman most admired in the airline industry.
But it was one thing to be the young guy with the innovative ideas and relentless energy in a small company in Salt Lake City where everyone was like family, quite another at a successful, well-established airline in Dallas. The old guard at Southwest looked at David like he was a mosquito they wanted to swat. He didn’t last six months. It was Kelleher, a great admirer of Neeleman’s talent, who took the young man to dinner at Ruth’s Chris in Dallas and said, “It’s not working. You’re driving everybody insane.”
At 34, David Neeleman was out of work. Again.
He could have retired and licked his wounds. He had plenty of money. Instead, he returned to Utah and started Open Skies, a software company that refined the ticketless ticket system David had envisioned and implemented at Morris Air — the innovation that was the prime motivator behind Southwest’s takeover.
And just to make sure he didn’t have time on his hands as he waited out the five-year noncompete clause that was part of the Southwest deal, he helped found a low-fare airline in Canada (where the clause wasn’t in effect) that was more or less a Morris Air clone called WestJet.
‘This is me’
It was during this interlude that Neeleman learned something important about himself that went a long way in explaining his frenetic behavior.
David’s parents had taken his youngest brother to a doctor to see why the teenager was having trouble concentrating in school. The diagnosis: Mark had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition that hadn’t even been labeled until just a few years earlier in 1987.
Suspecting David might also have ADHD, Rose Neeleman sent her son a book, “Driven to Distraction,” by Edward M. Hallowell, that listed 21 characteristics of ADHD.
“I read those 21 things and I put the book down and I had tears in my eyes,” recalls David. “I had every one of them. I thought, ‘Wow! This is me.’”
It explained a lot: why he had such a hard time concentrating on anything he wasn’t interested in; why he graduated “semi-illiterate” from Brighton High School with mostly C’s and D’s; why he scored so low on his college entrance exam that his counselor, in amazement, remarked, “You could have just marked C for every answer and gotten a higher score.”
David was well beyond high school before ADHD entered everyday lexicon and youngsters began to be treated with medication and other therapies.
“Now, everyone likes to say they have it, but no one knew about it when I was growing up,” says Neeleman. “It was tough for me. I was gregarious and I could get my way through things, but I couldn’t read. I could tell you everything I thought about what was in a book except for what was on the page.”
Discovering he had ADHD in his 30s didn’t cause him to take medication or other treatments. David’s dad Gary tells the story of David giving a talk at Harvard Business School.
“They asked him if he was taking medication for his ADHD. He told them, ‘No.’ They asked, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Because if I did I’d be just like the rest of you.’”
But having a better understanding of what drove him was incredibly liberating and freeing, and not only for David, for the whole Neeleman clan. It explained why his grandpa Johnny literally worked until the day before he died; it explained why his father Gary is still writing books in his 80s; it explained why Neelemans are, as Gary proclaims, “these 100% crazy driven people.”
When the noncompete period was up in 1998, David sold Open Skies to Hewlett Packard, left the running of WestJet to his partners, and got to work building the airline he’d had five years to envision — his next magnum opus: JetBlue.
No one had seen anything quite like it: a discount airline with leather upholstery, TVs in every seat, satellite radio, convenient airports, new routes, a computerized ticketless reservation system operated by agents working from their homes, and an emphasis on being on time.
“A customer service company that just happens to fly airplanes,” is how Neeleman described the new venture.
“David was like a clone of our grandfather,” says his brother Stephen. “He never wanted to disappoint the customer.”
In an industry notoriously short on putting passengers first, JetBlue and its innovations took off like the proverbial rocket. The airline quickly assumed a place among America’s largest carriers.
Then, for Neeleman, the ride ended much faster than expected. In 2007, JetBlue’s board fired the founder. A disastrous ice storm that winter caused major disruptions and left passengers stranded aboard a JetBlue flight for hours — in New York, no less, generating awful publicity.
Ironically, the man who brought humanity back to air travel was made the scapegoat. The company had gone public and Neeleman had no recourse. Like Steve Jobs with Apple, the very thing he’d created showed him the door.
Neeleman has never downplayed the betrayal he felt. “I was totally devastated,” he says. “I killed myself for that company. For years as I would land in airports it would be hard to look over and see my airline.”
But he’d been here before, and knew his only recourse was to get back on the proverbial horse and do it again.
That’s when he turned his attention to Brazil, the land of his birth.
David was born in Sao Paulo on Oct. 19, 1959, and lived in Brazil the first five years of his life. His parents had moved there from Salt Lake City when Gary, who learned Portuguese on his Latter-day Saint mission in Brazil, took a job at 23 as a correspondent for UPI, launching one of the most successful careers in that wire service’s history (eventually he became bureau chief for all of Central and South America).
David, too, served a mission in Brazil when he was 19. With his status as a Brazilian citizen (thanks to his birth), fluency in Portuguese, and love for the people, he set his sights on bringing the country a lower cost, more convenient form of airline travel.
He knew the two Brazils. During travels with his father he’d seen the affluent Brazil. As a missionary he’d lived with the poor. “That contrast really annoyed me,” he has said. “It made me want to do something to make a difference for the lower classes.”
The result was Azul Airlines. And yes, there is a subliminal message in the name. Azul translates to blue in English.
Azul opened up the Brazilian skies to a population that had long been underserved, creating routes between dozens of cities without previous air service and greatly increasing the number of nonstop flights.
Shortly after opening in 2008, just a year after Neeleman’s unceremonious dismissal from JetBlue, Azul began to emerge as one of Brazil’s top carriers. In 2021 it employs 15,000 people and is the country’s No. 2 airline in terms of revenue and No. 1 in terms of daily departures and cities served, over 100 of them, from corner to corner of the massive country, comprising more than 800 flights and more than 80,000 passengers daily.
In 2015, Neeleman also stepped up to help rescue TAP, Portugal’s struggling national airline, by buying a percentage of the company and infusing capital that rebuilt the fleet. When he sold his share in 2020, Portugal’s government thanked the Brazilian-American entrepreneur for his assistance in shoring up the troubled carrier.
A new venture
Which brings us to the present.
These days Neeleman is back home in Utah. He continues to oversee Azul (he made sure to write into the company bylaws that he cannot be fired), but not on an everyday basis. He bought the ski-in-ski-out house in Deer Valley five years ago so the family had a place to gather for vacations and a year ago made that his permanent residence.
The Brighton High grad is in high demand from business schools and companies that probe him for his secrets to success. And like it or not, he has become something of an authority on moving on past setbacks.
“It isn’t what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it,” is his mantra. “Nursing a grudge doesn’t do any good, it’s just wasted energy.” (With a smile, he adds, “Although I would be lying to you if I said when Azul’s market cap was approaching JetBlue’s it didn’t give me a thrill.”)
“Be who you are” is another mantra. His ADHD might make reading more difficult, but it helps him quickly distill complex situations into workable solutions. “It drives my team crazy,” he says. “They’ll go, ‘It’s not that simple,’ and I’ll go, ‘Yes, it is.’”
He skis a lot more now, and rides his mountain bike in the summer, and spends time with his kids and grandkids, almost all of whom are in Utah. He has eight guest bedrooms in his house and he’s adding two more, enough for each of his 10 children even if they all arrive at once. Sometimes they come close. Over Christmas he had 17 of his 24 grandkids on the hill skiing at the same time.
“He’s like an old shoe, there’s no pretense,” says his dad.
But don’t get the impression the Steve Jobs of the Skies is slowing down. This summer he’s set to roll out his next grand scheme: Breeze Airlines.
Breeze is based on three concepts: fly routes that others don’t, use young college aged kids as flight attendants while Breeze helps put them through school, and become the world’s “nicest” airline.
It is Breeze’s intent to connect smaller and mid-size cities with nonstop service.
“We feel there are literally hundreds of routes we can serve, where people can get places quicker for less money,” says Neeleman.
Using college students as flight attendants stems from Neeleman watching too many flight attendants over the years work for perennially low wages well past retirement — and burnout — age. Too often, “it’s a career that keeps you on the road as life slowly passes you by,” he observes.
His vision is a Breeze Airlines college scholarship program. Breeze will pay the tuition and expenses of qualified young people as they work as Breeze flight attendants while concurrently pursuing their degrees via online study. It will allow them to travel and see the world while they’re young, and once they graduate they can move on to the career of their choice.
He’s started a pilot program with Utah Valley University and is exploring affiliating with Southern Utah University and others.
As for being nice, Neeleman believes that is the foundation of all business, or should be. “If we say we’re the nicest airline, that’s not overpromising. It’s a message to our passengers and a message to our people. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.”
As has been the case since his earliest gambit, when he discounted those timeshare condos in Hawaii, David Neeleman sees it as a good deal-good deal-good deal — a good deal for his customers, a good deal for his employees, and perhaps most of all, a good deal for himself.
“The more people you touch, the more good you do, the more lives you change, the happier you are,” he says.
When that’s your mission statement, the only option when you finish one run is to get back on the lift and do it again.