Easyjet Plc Chief Executive Officer Carolyn McCall Interview
McCall has led EasyJet for seven years. Bloomberg Bloomberg—Getty Images

The Maker of Downton Abbey Just Poached One of Britain’s Most Powerful Female CEOs

Jul 17, 2017

In a blockbuster move, ITV, the U.K.'s biggest commercial broadcaster, said Monday that it had poached EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall as its new chief executive. McCall, a former CEO at Guardian Media Group who landed at No. 22 on Fortune's MPW International list last year, has led the discount airline for seven years.

In a statement, McCall said she's looking forward to helping ITV, the broadcaster behind the smash hit Downton Abbey and quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, "make the most of the amazing opportunities that it has in the future.” She'll start her new job in January.

As CEO of EasyJet, she'd been credited with transforming the airline into one of Europe's powerhouse low-cost carriers. Under her leadership, EasyJet expanded from an airline that primarily served tourists into a go-to for Europe's business travelers. The transformation took place, in part, by improving its customer service with new policies like assigned seating, rather than a first-come, first-serve free-for-all.

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McCall also made a habit of speaking frequently with the airline's pilots and crew during her frequent flights. In fact, she was known to walk down the center aisle, gathering passengers' trash when she was on board.

“Because they are so busy on the flight, it’s the easiest way to talk with the crew,” McCall told the New York Times in 2015.

In recent months though, EasyJet, based outside of London, has faced bumpier conditions due to the Brexit vote, the terror threat in Europe, and a glut of new capacity that's pushing down fares. On Friday, the company announced it was setting up an airline in Austria to ensure it can operate without restriction in the EU once the U.K. leaves the bloc.

The ITV job, meanwhile, presents its own unique set of challenges. Britain's television advertising market is starting to feel pressure from tech players like Facebook and Google, which are soaking up the majority of new digital ad revenues. As a result, the TV ad sector is heading for its worst year since the financial crash in 2009, according to the Financial Times.

In moving to the broadcaster, McCall will oversee a company with less revenue than EasyJet, but one that's more highly valued in the stock market. ITV had roughly 3 billion pounds in revenue in 2016 and boasts a market capitalization of 7 billion pounds. EasyJet brought in 4.7 billion in sales last year and has a market cap of 5.6 billion pounds, according to Bloomberg.

McCall is a rare female executive in the airline industry, and initially seemed to take flak from a peer for it. In a remark that came off as a dig at McCall's gender and experience, Michael O’Leary, the brash boss of rival Ryanair, dismissed her as “some old media luvvie” when she first landed the EasyJet job.

When asked about the quip, McCall replied: “I feel that operationally, I was able to bring a fresh perspective.” Indeed, her approach to the job has paid off for the airline in the long-term. She's delivered a total shareholder return of 312% during her tenure there, according to Reuters, outperforming the U.K. market.

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