Seasoned aviation guru speaks about Ethiopian
Girma Wake, former CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, joined Ethiopian at a young age. Girma was trained at Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy and served the airline for 34 years at various posts. In 1993 he had some disagreements with the then Ethiopian government officials and left the airlines to join Gulf Air. He also worked for DHL in the Middle East. Up on the government’s request Girma retuned to Ethiopian in 2004 to take the CEO position. After successfully restructuring the airline he retired in 2011. After leaving Ethiopian at the age of 67, Girma served RwandAir as board chairman and worked as advisor of the Rwandese Minister of Transport. Currently, Girma is adviser of the president of Togo on aviation matters. Aged 75 Girma has a 50 year experience in the aviation industry. He is married and a father of five and has eight grandchildren. Kaleyesus Bekele of The Reporter sat down with Girma and talked about his experience at Ethiopian Airlines and the current status of the airline. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Tells us how you first joined Ethiopian Airlines and how you went up the ladder?
Girma Wake: Joining Ethiopian Airlines at young age was like a fun. While we were university students I was playing soccer with my friends when they suddenly asked me to go with them to Bole. I asked them what we were going to do there. They told me that Ethiopian Airlines has put up an advertisement to recruit young cadets for piloting course. Though I had no such a plan I accompanied my friends to the headquarters of Ethiopian Airlines. We were enrolled for an entrance exam. I successfully passed the exam, interview and went through all the medical tests.
When did this happen?
It was in 1965. Then when were told that we were admitted to the pilot training school. I asked myself what the hell I was doing there. How dare I suspend my university education and join a pilot training school? I did not have a plan to be a pilot. My friends told me that I would get a better pay and visit many countries. I accepted their advice and started studying piloting. But I did not continue with my study in the pilot training school. I was transferred to the marketing department. I studied sales and marketing. Probably I was not going to be a good pilot.
I worked for many years in the sales department. I served Ethiopian Airlines marketing department from 1965 to 1988 at various posts. I was given training opportunities. There were many Americans who were managing the airline at that time. There were also Ethiopians but I was one of the Ethiopians who got good training opportunities.
I studied in the US, Germany, Ireland, Israel and Belgium. I got a scholarship offered by the European Union and studied for seven months.
I and my colleagues opened new departments at Ethiopian. We opened space control department. I was an area manager at Ghana, Tanzania, and Germany. I served us area manager for Western Europe. Then I returned to Ethiopia in 1988. I served as director, cargo from 1988-1993.
How did leave Ethiopian Airlines?
After the down fall of the Derg regime the EPRDF led government wanted to reorganize the airline. A committee was formed to undertake a study on the reorganizational plan. Government officials and executives of the airline were members of the committee. I was also one of the committee members representing the management. While we were working on the study I had frequent disagreements with the government representatives led by former Minister of Defense, Siye Abraha. I did not like the way they wanted to do things. It contravenes the working procedures of the airline. I told them that it was a wrong move and we entered into a feud.
They told me to do what I was told to do. I could not accept that. I was called to the prime minister office. Tamrat Layne was the prime minister at that time. I was told to attend a meeting there. Since I did not believe in the whole process that they were doing I had no interest to attend the meeting. So I told them that if they believed that what they were doing would benefit the airline they could do the study by their own and I did not want to be an obstacle. I told them that I wanted to leave.
I submitted a resignation letter and was released off my duty. I was idle for five months in Addis Ababa. Later I found a job at Gulf Air and left for the Middle East. I left the airline I loved and served for 27 years not because I wanted a better pay but the situation was not conducive. I could not work in that hostile environment.
How did you return to Ethiopian Airlines?
Later I was told that what the points I raised were appropriate. They said my arguments were correct and they asked me to return to the airline which I declined. Finally the then board chairman of the airline, Seyoum Mesfin (former minister of Foreign Affairs) asked me to take over the helm of the airline when the general manager, Bisrat Nigatu, resigned.
Seyoum called me for a meeting and we had a long discussion. He told me that the airline needs some assistance.
Was the airline in trouble?
It was not in a bad shape but there were some disagreements. There was miss trust between the management and the board of the airline. There were some reform that needed to be done. When Seyoum told me that the airline needs my help and he would be very grateful if I can return and take the leadership role I accepted the request.
They asked me how much I was paid in the Middle East and how much I demand to serve as CEO of the airline. I told them that I was not coming back home for money. I was coming come back because I wanted to serve the airline I love. I wanted to contribute my share to the airline where I grew up. But I set pre conditions.
What were your preconditions?
I told them that the government and the board should not interfere in the day to day operation of the airline. Neither the board nor the government should tell me where to fly, whom to appoint etc. they agreed and I rejoined Ethiopian Airlines as CEO in 2004. Before I return home the government hired Ernest and Young and HSTE to undertake a strategic study for the airline. Then I and executives of the airline together with the consultants worked on the study. It was a five year strategic plan dubbed Vision2010.
What were the major objectives of the strategic plan?
At that time the airline annual traffic was 1.2 million. In the strategic study we planned to grew the passenger traffic to three million. The annual revenue was 390 million dollars and we set a plan to increase it to a whopping 949 million dollars. I said it was okay let us make it one billion dollars. We had 28 aircraft and planned to grow the number of aircraft to 30. We planned to increase the profit from 31 million dollars to 75 million. Many had criticized the plan. They commented that the targets were not achievable. But we were confident that we would achieve our targets because we set the target based on the findings of our study. We started working on the plan and we achieved most of our targets by 2009, ahead of schedule.
What were your main achievements?
We had to enhance our capacity. To build our capacity we had to strengthen our training center. We built the capacity of the training center. There were some facilities that we lack. We built new cargo terminal. It was planned to be built during the former manager’s tenure but increased the planned capacity and inaugurated a new cargo terminal. We substantially increased aircraft utilization. We boosted flight frequencies. Our operational cost increased but our revenue also grew. We offered better choices for our passengers. Accordingly, our customer base expanded. Our passenger traffic increased significantly.
Can you substantiate your achievements with numbers?
We increased our passenger traffic from 1.2 million to 3.2 million. Annual revenue jumped from 390 million USD to 1.2 billion. Profit surged from 31 million USD to 101 million. Number of international destinations grew from 47 to 55. The number of aircraft increased from 28 to 33. Number of employees rose from 4600 to 6200.
We increased the employees’ productivity. We formed a good communication channel between the management and employees of the airline. We tried to create sense of belongingness among the workforce. We improved the labor management relationship.
There was a high staff turnover at that time. Especially senior pilots were leaving the airline in search of better pay. How did you manage to mitigate that problem?
That is true. There was staff turnover. We made salary adjustments. We made salary increment as high as 400 percent. However, we could not pay competitive salaries. We were unable to offer equivalent salary scales to what the international airlines offer. But we tried to raise the employees’ salaries as much as we can. Particularly for the pilots we made a huge increment because of the competition in the global airline industry. Even then our salary was not something that made them change their mind but the employees love their airline and their country. So they somehow saw the opportunity that they could grow with the airline.
How did you decide to retire?
When I returned to Ethiopian Airlines I agreed to serve for five years. In 2009 I told the then board chairman, Seyoum Mesfin, that I wanted to leave. He said that I have to stay until Vision 2010 is completed. He said that the Vision 2010 plan was going well and he would be grateful if I continue working. Then I stayed for two more years.
I groomed and mentored my successor. We drafted Vision 2025 by our own professionals. We presented the Vision 2025 plan to the government and the board and it was endorsed. I then said Vision 2025 is ready for implementation and my successor is ready to take over and allow me to go.
But rumors claim that you were pushed by the government or the current CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam to retire.
No one pushed me from the airline. As I said earlier I returned to the airline to serve for five years. We put things in order. I together with my colleagues outlined the growth strategy of the airline. In the mean time I was sick and had a surgery. After the surgery I returned to office and continued working. But I did not have any reason why I should stay longer with the airline. I felt that my mission was accomplished. I was 67 years old and there was a need to promote young blood. I convinced Seyoum that it was time for me to retire. Then he asked me who my successor was. I told him that Tewolde Gebremariam was competent enough to take my position and manage the airline.
How did you nominate Tewolde?
Tewolde was area manager for the Americas. When the then marketing manager Mekonnen Abebe retired I asked him who can replace him and he proposed that Tewolde can take over his position. It was me who brought Tewolde from the US.
I assigned Tewolde at various post and tested his competence. While he was working under me I witnessed his hard work and dedication. Since he grew up in the airline he has good knowledge of the airlines operation from bottom to top. That is why I proposed to the board and he was appointed to take the helm.
I confirm to you that it was by my own free will that I retired. In fact I tried hard to convince the board to let me go. And it was me who nominated Tewolde for the board. Neither Tewolde nor the board pushed me to retire.
Some people claim that the government intervened in your day to day operation and you had a disagreement with the board that led to your retirement.
That is not true. There was no pressure coming from the government or board of directors of the airline. The government did not intervene in my work. The board chairman, Seyoum, was very supportive of our plan. He had a vision for the airline. I have to speak the truth. Both the government and the board kept their words that they made not to meddle in the day to day operation of the airline. Seyoum was always by my side till the last day.
How do you see the growth of the airline after you left? Are you happy with the way the airline is managed?
The airline has been growing very fast since my retirement. I am happy with the growth of the airline. They are achieving all the targets we set in the Vision2025. The senior management team has proved that they can properly manage the airline. The airline is acquiring state of the art aircraft, the number of international destinations has increased significantly, and the number of passengers exceeded 10 million. The airline has become the biggest airline in Africa.
But there are complaints that some employees of the airline raise in connection with maladministration.
You cannot make everybody happy when you manage a company. If there are issues some of the employees raise they can lodge their complaints to the management. The airline has bylaws. The management and employees should sit and discuss to resolve their grievances. If the employees cannot get satisfactory response they can lodge their complaints to the board. The board can look at these matters. Those who have serious issues can take their case to court.
But I do not like the campaign waged against the airline on social media. It would not benefit anyone. You do not lead a company based on the critics posted on Facebook.
The Ethiopian government recently announced its plan to partially privatise leading state owned enterprises including Ethiopian Airlines. Some wonder the wisdom of privatising Africa’s most profitable and successful airline. What is your take on this?
I do not have full information as to why the government wants to privatise the airline. If it is to raise money for other projects I understand and they have every right to do that. I hope the short term interest will not over shadow our long term prospects. It may be necessary to take a lesson from the experiences of those who tried it before such as the case of Kenya Airways. Ethiopian Airlines is a profitable airline and the owners of the airline (the government of Ethiopia) can create a system of using part of the profit (its dividend) to fund other national projects. IMF never raised issues with the ownership of Ethiopian Airlines as far as I can remember so long as it is run on commercial bases.
When there is a change in government the political turmoil is reflected on the airline to some extent. When the Derg ousted Emperor Haile Selassie and came to power the airline went through a tough time. Similarly when the EPRDF led government seized power the incumbent had issues with the airline management and that is why you actually left the airline back then. Considering the current wind of change blowing in the country now what is your advice to the government?
I served Ethiopian Airlines at the three regimes-the imperial regime, the Derg and EPRDF. The airline was established by his Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie. When the Derg came to power we had a tough time. The military officers had animosity towards the airline. Because they believed that his majesty established the airline to glorify his personal glory. The Derg members came to us and told us that the emperor formed the airline to serve his ego. Some of them forced us to buy Russian made planes because they were communists.
They removed the first Ethiopian CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Semret Medhane (Col.), and replaced him by an Air Force General who they felt was their man. They also removed the Head of Human Resource, Ejigu Demisse and his assistants-director personnel and director Customer services – all with the hope of reducing the influence of what they thought were supporters of His Imperial Majesty.
After the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took over 35 management staff were removed on the belief that they were not supportive of the government's plan to “re organize” the airlines but went further to block it by dealing with outsiders at the time.
However, both governments learnt very fast the benefits of the airline to Ethiopia and reversed the course and supported the airline in whatever they could. In all these, all Ethiopian employees (regardless of their positions in the airline) worked together as a team and overcame the obstacles and the test of time that were placed in front of them.
The current political reform in Ethiopia does not contradict the prospects of the airline. The leaders understand the importance of the airline. I believe that they realise the positive contributions of the airline to the economic growth of the country. If there are complaints coming from the employees of the airline the board and the government should look into the matter and verify the allegations. Otherwise the government officials should not take any measure without investigating the matter. They should refrain from taking any action based on some unfounded accusations.
African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria had big national carriers. Today these great nations do not have national carriers. Today Ethiopian Airlines is the leading African carrier. It is an acclaimed world class airline. If we take a wrong action we could risk the demise of the airline like other African countries did. Hence, I strongly advise the government to handle the matter painstakingly. They should take time and think about some of the complaints we hear. They should evaluate all aspects. They should verify the complaints. If they find some wrong doings they should sit and discuss the matter with the management. They should tell the management to rectify the mal administration, if there is any.
They should say we are happy with what you have done with this and that. But there some issues that you need to address. Disagreements could flare up between management and employees. But it can be discussed and resolved.
What is your final message to employees and management of the airline?
Ethiopian Airlines is a national airline which has been built in the last 70 years. Many people paid sacrifices to build this airline. Former employees and management members worked hard as a team to build the airline. The current employees of the airline as their predecessors should work as a team to pass the baton to the next generation.