The Well Done Man – Chris Rossi

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The Well Done Man is a biographical interview with a Bostonian who is doing exceptional things. It is meant to give insight and knowledge regarding each interviewee’s vision of success and how, beyond their obvious talents, they have reached this point in their lives and careers.

Chris_RT1 (1)Air Travel is an evolving industry and not all airlines are created equal.  From mobile check in to onboard entertainment, innovation is changing the way we fly. This week we sit down with Chris Rossi, Quincy-native and SVP at Virgin Atlantic, to talk about his journey from the tarmac at Logan Airport to the challenges and rewards of running North American operations for Virgin Atlantic.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Growing up in Quincy, my childhood home was directly beneath the major flight paths at Boston Logan. I was fascinated by the planes that flew over my house every day, and became an airline geek at a really young age. Along with two of my best friends – one went on to get his pilot’s license at 16 and the other became an engineer! – I would take the train to the airport in my free time. Back then, you could actually go up into the tower to watch the planes. It was a pretty incredible experience, and that’s what led me to fall in love with the world of aviation.

I chose to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which specializes in aviation and aerospace, and teaches everything from flying, to engineering and aviation business management. I was most attracted to the “business behind the business” and went down the management path, which allowed me to better understand the operational aspects of aviation – how to treat customers, how to sell to them, how to manage the financials and much more.

I came back to the area after graduation and joined Virgin Atlantic as a ticket agent at Logan in the early 90s. Over the next two decades, I took on a variety of roles, from running the regional sales office on Newbury Street to managing the US sales and marketing teams at our US headquarters in Norwalk, CT. I eventually started running Virgin Atlantic’s North America operation about ten years ago.

Was there a point for you when you really turned the corner in your career?

Yes, it was back in early 2003 when I was heading up our sales force. My boss, who at the time was in my current position, started talking to me about combining the sales and marketing teams. I wasn’t a marketing person by trade, but I was passionate about the brand and was up for taking on a new challenge. I must have said enough to convince him that I could do it, because he entrusted me with the job of managing both departments.

At the time, we were choosing a new advertising agency after working with the same one for 19 years. That was significant because the bar was set high by past teams responsible for creating some of the industry’s most well-known and eye-catching campaigns. More importantly, it pushed me to hit the ground running – to quickly get up to speed on our marketing efforts and work with my teammates and new agency to come up with an innovative campaign. That move was a springboard for me and led to a much more varied career. I thoroughly enjoyed that time period at Virgin Atlantic because we were all very young and hungry, and the company offered us the opportunity to do some great things. That was a real transformational moment for me.

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Chris and team at a recent event in Boston.

What does your day look like now?

My day ranges, which is probably why I like what I do so much. One hour I can be discussing our messaging with marketing, and the next hour I can be with our Head of Airports talking about setting up operations in a new airport. I always talk to our younger employees about trying to be versatile and not staying in one area. I know my experience in different jobs is what gave me the ability to take on this leadership role.

What is your biggest challenge at Virgin Atlantic?

I challenge myself to come into work every day thinking “how can I add value for our customers?”  A lot of airlines can fly you from Boston to London, so it’s crucial to take a differentiated approach. By being honest and authentic and putting our customers first, we aim to reassure them that we have their backs and are on their side. It’s so important not to become more about you than about your customer. Quite frankly, that’s what gave us the competitive opening to even start Virgin Atlantic. Other airlines weren’t thinking that way.

Virgin is known for going above and beyond with its customer service and amenities. Was that Richard Branson’s vision from the start?

It was. Richard Branson started Virgin Atlantic in 1984 because he wanted to provide something different and better for customers. He thought flying could be fun again, and took inspiration from other Virgin companies, including Virgin Records. With entertainment in our DNA, we fully believed that flying shouldn’t be a chore – it was meant to be enjoyed.  That ethos continues today, and our daily, mandatory assignment is to keep people entertained and make sure they have some fun while on board. That spirit has spurred many of the innovations that we’ve introduced to air travel, like an onboard bar, seatback entertainment, and a Premium Economy cabin. There’s an attitude at Virgin of “let’s ask” and a natural curiosity that definitely flows from Richard. He knows that a good idea can come from anywhere and he’s willing to act on it if it’s viable.

Richard Branson

“There’s an attitude at Virgin of “let’s ask” and a natural curiosity that definitely flows from Richard.”

How does working for someone like Richard Branson affect your job?

Richard’s ethos trickles down through the whole company. I had the opportunity to learn it firsthand early on: I met Richard my second month on the job when he was making the turn in Boston for a couple hours before heading back to London. I was in an entry level position at the time, but he came right up to me and introduced himself. As we were chatting, he noticed that several customers were looking for a way to get their luggage into the gate area. He nudged me and said “let’s go get them Smarte Cartes.” So we bought Smarte Cartes for this group and Richard and I brought their luggage over to the gate for them. I learned very quickly that being curious and observant to deliver amazing customer service is what makes him tick, and that is what continues to drive our business.

Commercial aviation can sometimes seem like an industry that is stuck in time. Why don’t all airlines innovate the way Virgin does?

The airline business is always changing, and technology is a big driver of that, because it’s always changing so rapidly. I think the worst thing you can do is say “we’ve got this figured out and are set for the next few years” because it never happens. From product development on the airplanes to the technology that supports the overall business, it’s incredibly complex – complexities that aren’t necessarily known to the flyer. The businesses that recognize the importance of constant innovation give themselves a chance to succeed.

What are some current trends in air travel?

A key trend from a customer standpoint is the shift to self-service control through mobile devices. Airlines have really started to embrace that concept, and it’s going to be incumbent upon us to offer that service all the way through the customer experience – from making a booking to perhaps ordering meals on-board. That’s something we’ll be looking to expand on

Is there anything cool on the immediate horizon for Virgin Atlantic?

We’re continuing to add to our new fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s, which are game changing airplanes. They are more fuel efficient, have less humidity, feature the most window space of any commercial aircraft, and we’ve built in new features like the “Wander Wall” – a social area on board in Premium Economy. In 2015, we made a three year £300m commitment to investing in our customer experience, which includes things like outfitting our entire fleet with WiFi and refurbishing some of our iconic Clubhouses in the airports.

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Chris recently accepted the BABCNE’s award on behalf of Virgin Atlantic to mark 25 years of service and innovation in Boston.

On the ground we’ve launched an exciting entrepreneur event series that has given us the opportunity to connect with the local business communities that we serve. We’ve done them in LA and D.C. and will be doing one in Boston this fall. The goal is to bring our “Business is an Adventure” mantra to life and showcase how the most innovative business people in the country make that adventure epic. Richard is involved, and we’ve been joined by other amazing entrepreneurs such as Kevin Plank from Under Armour and Sheila Johnson from Salamander Hotels. The engagement has been fantastic.

What do you love about your job?

I love seeing the people that work for me being motivated by serving our customers and our business, whether they’re at the airport making sure our flights take off without a hitch, in our marketing department creating great content and events, or developing valuable sales relationships with our clients. I come into work every day thinking “how can I continue creating an environment for my team to succeed?”

What inspires you about Boston?

You have everything here. Growing up here, you might not appreciate Boston as much as you do when you’re older and start acquiring different perspectives. The energy here is amazing. The people who have driven innovation through a culture of hard working tenacity are unmatched. And the area is beautiful, from the Cape to the mountains in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, it’s got everything going for it.

Any advice for someone looking to enter Aviation or works there now and wants to get ahead?

My advice is that if you are thinking about it and it’s a passion, follow it. When I was a kid, aviation was a passion for me and I knew I wanted to be in it. I didn’t put pressure on myself to do one specific job because I figured the right opportunity would come to me if I worked hard and took on a variety of challenges. It’s tremendously rewarding because it’s so complex and there are so many opportunities.

Sam Calef

Sam Calef

Sam Calef is Founder and Managing Partner at Well Done Boston. He always has time for interesting people, the whole truth and a trip to the beach.

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