Fairfield Dolan Dean’s Executive Forum Hosts JetBlue CFO Ursula Hurley ’04

Fairfield Dolan Dean’s Executive Forum Hosts JetBlue CFO Ursula Hurley ’04

Photo of Ursula Hurley

JetBlue CFO Ursula Hurley ’04

Dean Zhan Li, DBA, hosted JetBlue’s Chief Financial Officer Ursula Hurley ’04 at the Nov. 16 Dean’s Executive Forum. The event was co-moderated by Helena Keefe, PhD, assistant professor of economics and director of Dolan’s international business program.

I’ve learned to be comfortable navigating scenarios that are gray and ambiguous, and how to make quick decisions. A meaningful takeaway, for me, is how important teamwork is. We wouldn’t be navigating through [JetBlue's] recovery right now if we hadn’t all come together as a company.

— Ursula Hurley ’04

The topic, “Leading and Managing in Uncertain Times,” could hardly have been more appropriate or timely, considering what the airline industry has endured during the past 18 months. Ursula Hurley '04, recently named JetBlue’s CFO, spoke of the short- and long-term strategies she and her team put in place to keep the company afloat, and the lessons learned from the year that was like none other.

“Covid shocked the airline industry more than September 11, more than the oil crisis,” said Hurley, by way of putting the events of the year into perspective. “In the second quarter of 2020, we saw our revenue plummet 90 percent, [while] burning through $18 million a day. While we typically operate over 1,000 flights a day we were flying maybe 100. We needed to move quickly to secure our financial position given the drastic drop in demand.”

As the company’s CFO, Hurley is responsible for JetBlue’s overall financial strategy, cash management, corporate finance, aircraft and engine transactions, strategic sourcing, and real estate. Her team made more than a dozen different deals with business partners, postponing the purchase of new planes, for example, and extending payment schedules. An infusion of government money helped, but the company also needed to reduce their cash burn.

“We parked 170 planes in the desert, and stopped flying routes that were not producing positive numbers,” she said. By the end of 2020, the steps the company took meant they were able to reduce their cash burn to $6 million a day.

“You know those corporate finance and capital markets classes you have to take at Fairfield?” she asked the students in attendance. “Well, they’re real, so pay attention!”

With so many planes on the ground, there was little work for many of the company’s employees. JetBlue got creative, allowing people to take unpaid leave and early retirements, and the company is extremely proud that they were the only U.S. airline to not furlough or send Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications (WARN notices) to their employees.

The company also focused on communicating to their employees and to the public, stressing that the safety and health of their customers and crew members was their number one priority. They doubled down on cleaning and educated the public on the efficacy of planes’ HEPA filters, while allowing for no-fee changes and cancellations, all with a focus on instilling confidence in airline travel again.

(l-r) Dean Zhan Li, DBA, Ursula Hurley ’04, and Helena Keefe, PhD.

(l-r) Dean Zhan Li, DBA, Ursula Hurley ’04, and Helena Keefe, PhD.

July and August were solid months for the industry. And while the Delta variant curtailed some flying this fall, the holiday season is looking strong. That’s good news for JetBlue, which saw its debt double to $5 billion in the last year, an amount that Hurley and her team are now whittling down as the industry gets back to business and producing positive cash flow.

“The year was extremely stressful and it was the hardest I’ve ever worked, but I learned so much,” said Hurley. “I’ve learned to be comfortable navigating scenarios that are gray and ambiguous, and how to make quick decisions. A meaningful takeaway, for me, is how important teamwork is. We wouldn’t be navigating through our recovery right now if we hadn’t all come together as a company — from finance to operations to communications. Our five values acted as our guiding light — similar to Fairfield — and have helped us be successful for the past 21 years. ”

Hurley, a management major at Fairfield, started at JetBlue 17 years ago as an intern, a position she applied to on the Fairfield job board. “I liked the free flights so much that I asked if I could stay and work during my senior year,” she recalled. Eschewing her original plan to go into investment banking, she worked her way through the company, starting in accounting, financial planning and analysis, then treasury and procurement and strategic sourcing. Today, in addition to managing the company’s $13 billion balance sheet, she is president of the JetBlue Foundation, committed to supporting aviation-related education and STEM initiatives, and is a valued member of the Fairfield Dolan Advisory Board.

The Dolan Dean’s Executive Forum is a regular event, engaging thought leaders and distinguished executives to talk about issues that impact business and society. The November 16 Forum attracted 220 people who joined both in person and online.

We look forward to sharing with you our latest brand video featuring Ursula during the 2022 AACSB Deans Conference.  

Tags:  Dolan School,  Top Stories

Last modified: 01-24-22 3:56 PM

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