Crystal balls and enchanted mirrors are the fodder of fairytales, but economic forecasting may be the closest thing to predicting the future in real life. And the airline industry may just be one of the most difficult to divine, with plans made several months in advance and hard-to-predict factors like fuel prices, weather and terrorist attacks complicating the already difficult art.
While all of this sounds incredibly daunting, Anthony Gregory, a two-time B&E graduate program alumnus, loves it.
Gregory said his M.B.A. and his MA in Economics at WVU have helped him immensely in his employment with Southwest Airlines as Manager of Financial Planning and Analysis in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. There, he leads a team that provides analytical support and insight to help Southwest Airlines plan its commercial and long term strategies. His specific role as manager is to monitor the economy and competitors in order to provide guidance on the company's future business plans, as well as evaluate the performance of Southwest's route network.
With all the uncertainty swirling around those topics, perhaps it's unsurprising that Gregory chuckled and said, "There's never a 'normal' day."
"It's living in a very gray world. It's a job that requires you to know the facts and know the data, and in addition make a lot of educated guesses and assumptions based on what you think the environment will be like in the future," he said. "It's taking all the facts you know and adding your insight and your education on top of it."
Luckily for him (and Southwest), Gregory's had plenty of education to help him to rise to these challenges. Prior to his dual master's program at WVU, he graduated with a B.S. in Aviation from Purdue University.
"Undergrad gave me the fundamentals of the airline industry. Airlines focus intensely on day-to-day operations, making sure the aircraft run efficiently," he said. "But there's a piece of the business that is very strategic and commercially oriented: profit margins within the industry are very thin and highly reactive to factors outside of our control, like global energy prices." Gregory referenced the fact that fuel accounts for around 40% of the industry's total costs.
Gregory said that the airline industry is one of the most sensitive to changes in the economy, and that strategic planning and good decision making can really make a difference in a company's bottom line. "My degrees at West Virginia gave me the logical thinking ability, statistical analysis skills and holistic understanding of the business environment that allows someone to continually make good decisions in a gray environment."
In graduate school at WVU, Gregory said he learned key skills that built upon his undergraduate knowledge. "Econometrics is the first (subject) that comes to mind. Tough classes, but a lot of what I learned are techniques that I use daily," he said.
Financial accounting with Professor Frank DeGeorge was also important to Gregory. "If you're not an accountant, which I'm not, it's still so crucial to know fundamental financial analysis. It's a huge competitive edge when it comes to interviewing or excelling in any role," he said.
He also believes that Organizational Behavior with Dr. Abhishek Srivastava was essential. "The ability to understand your emotional intelligence is key to a leadership role. What I've found at Southwest is that the most effective traits (of leaders) include the ability to communicate often, clearly and specifically, and to have (your employees) know that you care and you have their personal interests in mind, not just deadlines."
After serving for more than two years as a manager in the network planning department, the division that designs Southwest's route network and flight schedules to optimally deploy 500-plus aircraft for more than 4,000 flights per day, Southwest asked Gregory to create a new team to better guide that department's planning efforts.
"I was asked to create this new team because of my background in economics at WVU," Gregory said. "It's a very analytical role, very much a strategic thinking role. We provide an assessment of the economy and passenger demand strength to the network planning team so they can deploy our aircraft where they'll be most profitable."
Gregory said his education at WVU gave him a holistic understanding of business which allows one to continually make good decisions so far ahead of time, and also how to communicate complex information clearly. But he didn't just learn from the classroom. His service as a research assistant for the WVU Bureau of Business & Economic Research was a "huge help" in preparing him for his current role.
"Dr. (Tom) Witt was a great mentor for me from a technical perspective," said Gregory. "He taught me to present complex information in an easy-to-understand way. The applied knowledge that I gained while working for the Bureau has been invaluable."
Southwest's company culture prides itself on exemplary customer service while simultaneously being a low-fare airline. The role employees like Gregory play in financial planning has a direct effect on maintaining that culture.
"We answer to our shareholders, but for every decision we make that affects the customer, we think about how it impacts what we call our 'value proposition.' Any time a company tries to branch out to be all things to all people, they're in trouble," Gregory said. "We know customers fly us with the thought that they're going to get the best value in air travel. At the end of the day, you'll have a good fare and your bags fly free," he added.
"My best advice is to be clear, confident and courageous while focusing on your company's best qualities. What I love most is the feeling that my team is able to have a significant positive impact on the company," Gregory said. "I look back at my time at West Virginia and a lot of what I learned plays very plainly to the ability to think about a problem and come up with holistic solutions."