Sean Donohue, 53, got into the aviation business as an accounting clerk for United Airlines. When he left the company 25 years later, he was in charge of its operations worldwide. He then served as COO of Virgin Australia, before taking the helm of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport last fall. Donohue says he was intrigued by the chance to focus on strategy and take a long-term view, versus the quarter-to-quarter emphasis at airlines. He and his wife also were impressed by the region’s “extraordinarily friendly and helpful” people—something that came across even when visiting prospective schools for their children. “There was a maturity level with students we hadn’t seen before, in all the other cities we’ve been in,” he says.
My dad was career military. I was born in Paris, France, grew up in central Massachusetts, and went to Boston College.
I worked as a toll-taker on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
IF NOT AVIATION
Both my mom and dad were teachers, and I could see myself doing that. It’s a high-impact job.
I like to be visible. I like to get out and be with employees, customers, the community. I tend to get impatient when it comes to delivering things faster. I encourage people to be more decisive and to think outside the box.
Even though I’m decisive, I consider myself to be a good listener—and I’ve got a lot to learn here [at the airport].
As my wife tells me all the time, I don’t smile enough. So I can come across as being too serious.
Don’t believe everything you’re told. Get in there and see what the real issues are.
BEST ADVICE RECEIVED
Being in the airline and airport industry, you never take risks with safety, but with other business issues, it’s okay to take a well-researched risk. … That’s what technology companies do really well.
I’ve had experiences where I’ve had to go in and fix things, and you get satisfaction from turning things around. What I’m enjoying here is, how do you take something that’s successful and make it even more successful?
Our greatest opportunity is the continued focus on growing our international business. … I believe there are opportunities for the region as a whole to become more global. We have all of these advantages; we need to really optimize those advantages from a global perspective.
My wife, Susan, and I have five children, ranging in age from 13 to 24. We have “bookend boys” and three girls in the middle.
When we were in Australia, we went over to New Zealand, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I still love going to Cape Cod in Massachusetts; we try to go up there every summer. And we’re really looking forward to exploring Texas.
I’m probably the only person in this region who’s not a big fan of Tex-Mex food. It’s my boring Irish heritage.