On a Flight Path to Success

Working for an airline requires quick responses, says JetBlue’s Schroeter.

Ryan Schroeter, the 34-year-old assistant treasurer at JetBlue Airways, attributes his career successes to his parents, the high school teacher who first got him interested in accounting, and a willingness to take risks. The biggest risk was his decision in 2006 to leave a comfortable, well-paid career at Johnson & Johnson, where he was an assistant manager in the internal audit department, to take a lower paid and lower ranking post as senior analyst at an upstart airline called JetBlue.

It was a smart if risky decision that has paid off well. Schroeter moved up quickly in the treasury at $3.8 billion JetBlue and was appointed assistant treasurer in 2009.

 

What has been your biggest challenge at Jet Blue?
Just keeping up with the pace as the business changes. With airlines, in one day the entire industry can be turned upside down and headed the other way. I came from the manufacturing industry, where things were much slower. Just as an example, when Lehman fell in 2008, we were in the midst of financing a large bunch of airplanes. Prior to that event, we had some really preferential pricing. The following day, all the banks disappeared and the prices rose. At the same time, we had to immediately reverse all our hedge positions for fuel. If we hadn’t done that right away successfully, it would have put us out of business.

What’s your biggest learning experience?
Learning to adapt quickly and manage multiple projects at one time and trying to find win-win scenarios when the tables turn overnight.

What has been your most rewarding job?
Once a few years ago, our airline was growing too quickly, so with the CFO I was working to slow that growth. We decided to start selling aircraft from the bottom of the deck. Within two weeks, I and my counterpart in legal began going around the world trying to sell planes. It’s a completely different world from buying them. Sometimes I felt like a used car salesman. But we ended up selling off 20 planes. It was really successful for the airline and helped improve the capital structure and cut maintenance costs.

What do you like best about your job?
The pace and the variety. No two days are alike here. There’s usually some financial drill, which we call blocking and tackling. And when we have time, there’s strategy. We like to build in a lot of levers in our forecasting models. I don’t know if anyone in this industry has successfully planned for the future, but if you build the ability to react quickly, that gives you success. The reality is that as long as you can be stronger than your competitors in this industry, then you can live at least one day longer than they will. It comes down to being the best of the worst, or of the mediocre.

You didn’t have mentors, but do you mentor people yourself?
I have two whom I’m actively mentoring. One guy worked in the stock room. He was quite good at technology, and I saw someone who wanted more. He said he was studying accounting in night school, and I thought, “I’m going to watch this guy!” He finished his accounting degree and he’s in the treasury department now, where he’s become a great resource.

Any advice for people interested in treasury and finance?
You have to be passionate about the numbers and about driving profit. And you have to be ready to take risks. Don’t ever get in a position where you feel trapped. If you get there, take a risk and move. The ability to steer your career and feel like a better person is much better than just staying where it’s comfortable.

 

 

For the complete 2011 40 Under 40 list, see Ready to Take Charge.

You can find more coverage of the 40 Under 40 list here.

 

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