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easyJet CIOs chartered flight into digital leadership

Unilever, Mars and easyJet have something in common.  The two makers of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and the low cost airline have as a trio been instrumental in the careers of a number of transformative CIOs.  

In today’s web led and fast paced economy easyJet has been the school of cool, creating a group of CIOs that embody agility, strong business leadership and innovation, all the skills today’s CIO has to have.

Horizon brought together Simon Lamkin, CIO of Brussels Airlines, Colin Rees, CIO Domino Pizza, Mike Sturrock, CIO DX Group and Andy Caddy, CIO of Virgin Active, all of whom cut their leadership teeth at easyJet during the Luton headquartered business’ most rapid journeys of growth.  

Our four CIOs spent their formative years at easyJet. Andy Caddy joined in 2005 as Head of IT Services before becoming Head of Enterprise Architecture and then CTO before becoming CIO of the Virgin Active health business in 2013.

Simon Lamkin joined easyJet in 2004 as Commercial Systems Manager, which led to a role as Airport Systems Manager then Head of IT before his current role as CIO for Brussels Airlines.  Colin Rees joined easyJet in 2000 as Senior Programme Manager and would become head of systems and software in a 10 year career before joining Domino Pizza as CIO where he has been for the last six years.

Mike Sturrock entered the easyJet technology cockpit in 2007 as Head of Operations Systems and before leaving in 2011 was interim CIO during 2010; Sturrock is now CIO of logistics leaders DX Group.  All have featured highly on various power lists of the UK’s business technology leaders.


Picture by Matt Gore/icon

Founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou had a spartan office with just one PC and a vision from day one that the business would be paperless.  Throughout the history of easyJet its innovative attitude towards technology has enabled it to be a disruptive business.

From the outset easyJet refused to use the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) that connect airline routes and seats to travel operators.  Instead easyJet sold directly to the customers, initially via a call centre.  This decision is said to have saved 25% on each and every ticket and rocked the airline industry as the cost of flying plummeted and opened up European travel to a far wider customer base than had ever been seen before.  Initially incumbent airlines treated easyJet with scorn and were convinced that the innovative business model would be unsustainable.

“The internet is a tool that becomes available to people once in a generation,”  Stelios Haji-Ioannou

In 1997 easyJet became one of the first airlines to launch a website, initially as just an online brochure leading travellers to a telephone number to book via the call centre.  The telephone number advertised on the website differed from the number advertised in the mainstream media.  That simple decision informed easyJet of the demand for an online service. By April 1998 easyJet was selling airline tickets online.  Today booking a flight online is the norm, in 1998 it was a significant innovation and web bookings grew by 26% in just a year and by 1999 over half of easyJet sales were made online and over 80% by 2001.

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“The internet is a tool that becomes available to people once in a generation,” easyJet founder Stelios is famously quoted as saying.  But as the Horizon podcast reveals from four CIOs, innovation and a focus on methods that ensured low administration costs has enabled easyJet to take off and land a dominant position in the European travel economy.

Stelios had in Ray Webster, the initial CEO of easyJet, a business leader that understood the power of technology to innovate business models.  Webster, fondly described by our four CIOs, pioneered a revenue and yield management technology that was bespoke to easyJet and enabled the business to be the first in Europe to offer ticket pricing that changed according to demand.  That decision would later ensure easyJet recovered from the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA faster than other airlines.

These CIOs were at easyJet during its second and most significant period of growth as it approached its 10 year old birthday and beyond, and that period and role has had a profound impact on their careers as they are now associated with being transformational CIOs in businesses that were digital businesses before it became the much hyped topic it is now.

“The reason that we all look so fondly on our time at easyJet was that it was an exceptional set of factors,” Virgin Active CIO Andy Caddy says.  “It was an incredibly commercial organisation, it concentrated on the customer in what would today be called the customer journey and it had a belief in having a collection of smart people and that is something that united us.”

“Our architecture was so simple and strong; when we bought other airlines we bought them into our architecture and that helps with directing the people at the things that deliver the most value,” DX Group CIO Mike Sturrock says of how easyJet remained focused on simplicity and its core mission, a theme that comes up a number of times during the podcast discussion.

“One of the key things when I joined Brussels Airlines,” says Simon Lamkin, “was that I started asking about the customer journey and how can we bring that to life, as that was an important part of the easyJet journey.  In 2010 when Carolyn McCall joined as CEO there was a real emphasis and drive to be a customer focused team. The operations team changed to be customer focused too and they spent less time tracking where planes were and more on the customer journey.  In 2010 and onwards the focus and drive on the customer and putting the customer first and that is one of the key things I have taken out to Brussels to make that core.”

Picture by Matt Gore/icon

“A fascinating thing about the safety is the processes and a lot of the processes come out of NASA,” Domino Pizza CIO Colin Rees says. “And there is a whole stream around understanding that failure will happen and largely around people and making sure that there is redundancy built in and how to respond and that helped me in the processes at Domino and it has helped by influencing how you make decisions with the assumption that you will fail and how you prevent that impacting the customer.” (Read the Horizon CIO interview with Colin Rees)

International weekly business newspaper The Economist said easyJet and Ryanair did more to integrate Europe than any minister, some irony that in 2017 that the UK could lose a business that created a culture change in society and technology leadership.


This Horizon Business Innovation Podcast was kindly produced in partnership with Intergence
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