An Aussie at Alitalia
Cramer Ball sits cross-legged on a chair in the Rome airport office of his celebrity chairman, former Ferrari boss Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.
The Australian-born Ball reckons he’s been working 16-18 hour days during his first eight weeks of running Italian national carrier, Alitalia. And today at least, he looks it. His eyes are red-rimmed. He seems nervous for his first in-depth interview with a reporter from his homeland.
But there is added pressure: to his left sits Montezemolo, a legend of Italian business. Sitting on the next chair is his long-time boss, Etihad Aviation Group chief executive James Hogan. And facing him are three media minders, two from Alitalia and one from its 49 per cent owner, Etihad.
Still, the long hours have done nothing to rob the 48-year-old of his ability to play to the crowd.
Asked how often he has talked to his chairman during his first two months, there is a pause before he replies: “More than I talk to my wife.” Montezemolo replies with a grin: “Lucky him.” Australia has proved a fertile training ground for airline managers, and Etihad’s stakes in airlines around the world has opened up opportunities for the best of them to run international businesses.
Ball earned a reputation as Etihad’s fix-it-man after turning its investments in Air Seychelles and India’s Jet Airways into winners. Now he is being asked to resurrect Alitalia under the attentive eyes of Montezemolo, and with Hogan, Alitalia’s deputy chairman, sitting at his board table or on the phone from Abu Dhabi. Looking on is the Italian public, who lost respect for their national carrier long ago thanks to its poor product, shoddy service and meddling by politicians. To its worst critics it has been a laughing stock of global aviation.
Yet Ball only sees positives: “I am very fortunate. I have Luca here who understands Italy, Europe, and is so well connected. That is invaluable. And to have an industrial vice chairman like James is invaluable – someone who I can quickly call and bounce things off. The other thing that works from an Australian perspective is that there is no BS – they think something, they tell me.”
Ball has quickly won a reputation for a strong work ethic and expects others to keep up. He has banished the comfortable 9-5 working hours and long “staff meetings” over espresso at the staff café at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.
“When I came in we spent 16-18 hours a day working through every route,” Ball says. “I say to my team every single day – we must move quickly. My favourite word (in Italian) is veloce, veloce, veloce – quick, quick, quick. On my first weekend here I had everyone working over the weekend and working at night, seven days. Every single day. So it is sending a message about cultural change.”
Montezemolo agrees that “under Cramer we are now more rapid in decisions. They are made at 9am in the morning and implemented one hour later.”
Ball also stands out in his attention to detail. Insiders say they have never seen an Alitalia chief executive look at a balance sheet quite like this one.
“It is the Australian way and very simple. You roll up your sleeves, you get your hands dirty, you get involved in the business,” Ball says. “You must understand the business at a forensic level. It is the combination of what makes profit: revenue, costs and productivity. And getting involved right into the detail.”
Ball’s ease with numbers comes from his accounting background. Born in the NSW Hunter Valley town of Singleton, he graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree from Newcastle University before qualifying as a certified practising accountant.
He started his career in Sydney as treasury manager at Transfield Holdings, a company that had been founded by Italians. “Two Italian immigrants came to Australia with nothing and built it into a massive company. That was my first taste of Italy,” he says.
He then took a senior role at Ansett Australia, meeting his wife Liana, who is Italian and who told him she wanted to live in Italy. “I married into the culture. So I feel like Alitalia is almost a natural progression,” he says.
For two decades they lived at Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches, giving Ball the opportunity to indulge in his passion for surfing while he held down jobs with Qantas and Gulf Air. He does have one regret about where his career has taken him: “I miss surfing, I used to surf most mornings. It is one thing I miss, Australia has an incredible lifestyle.”
Under Hogan, Ball led the start-up of Etihad Airways down under as the airline’s general manager for Australia and New Zealand, and then moved to Bangkok to be regional general manager for Southeast Asia, before moving to the Seychelles and then India.
Air Seychelles (40 per cent owned by Etihad) became profitable under Ball and was the first airline in the region to be awarded a Skytrax four-star rating for product and service quality.
Then in September 2014 he moved to Jet (in which Etihad has a 24 per cent stake) and embarked on a threeyear turnaround plan. He cut costs, cleaned up the balance sheet and introduced new product and service initiatives – all with celebrity chairman Naresh Goyal, Jet’s founder and 51 per cent shareholder, breathing down his neck.
Jet has just posted a record annual profit of $US185 million ($258m), its first consolidated annual profit in eight years. “Jet Airways’ performance in FY 16 has seen significant improvement across key metrics – cost and revenue quality, productivity and efficiency,” Kapil Kaul, CEO south Asia at CAPA Centre for Aviation, said in February.
Eighteen months into the Jet turnaround, Ball got a call from a headhunter seeking his interest in applying for the Alitalia job. Three months later he was CEO.
“My wife was only a component of the decision. Of course I don’t tell her that,” he says with a smile.
“But I believe this is one of the best jobs in aviation. You look at the history and what Alitalia means to the country. I can’t think of many other airlines around the world that you would want to work for. I like a challenge. I believe we have the fundamentals and you look at the work that has been done over the past 12 months, it has come a long way. There is a huge opportunity – an iconic brand, great people, and Italy as a destination.”
Ball has brought to Italy much that he learned at Jet and Air Seychelles: the need for speed, flexibility and working within the culture.
“The Italians are very similar to the Indians,” he says. “The people are proud of the company and the company is their life. I remember coming here on one of my first trips. I spoke to a lady who had been here 12 years. I said ‘Do you enjoy it?’ She said ‘Sir, every day I put on my jacket I am so proud. So proud.’ That is the culture. That is part of who they are. You need to work with that and you need to leverage it.”
Ball likes walking around the business and understanding what makes the operations tick. “You cannot run this place sitting in an office,” he says.
Montezemolo agrees – Ball is the first CEO to visit regional airports throughout Italy to talk to staff.
“They have never seen, in their offices, the CEO of Alitalia,” Montezemolo says.
Hogan says that when Etihad acquired its shareholding in Alitalia it had global consulting firm PA Consulting assess the top 250 managers in the company. It found them “outstanding”. “What did they want? Leadership,” Hogan says. “Someone who knows airlines. Cramer and the other people who have come in, they know the business. Middle management is responding to the people who can talk the talk on aviation.
“This has been a very formal company in the past. We (Etihad) are much more collegiate and informal. (Alitalia) has become very quickly an entrepreneurial business. There are many more things to be done. But it has flexibility as a business. And it needs consistency in regard to service and the customer proposition moving forward.”
Alitalia operates a 2000sq m staff training centre at Fiumicino with a five-star restaurant and even a make-up training room. The airline has also sent more than 4000 people to Etihad’s Training Academy in Abu Dhabi. While this has led some to muse about an Etihad takeover by stealth, Hogan stresses the Abu Dhabi secondments were not about “telling them how to do their job”.
“It was inviting them into our business, our style, which is very similar,” he says. “A woman who manages our lounges here in Rome said to me, ‘Thanks for giving us back our dignity – we now have the tools to win’.”
Last month the airline introduced new staff uniforms – the first for two decades – designed by Milan-based haute couturier Ettore Bilotta, and launched the first major global advertising campaign for seven years, using the work of top fashion photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari.
In April Alitalia revealed that losses were down by €381 million ($590m) last year to €200m and that it was on track with its plan to be profitable by the end of next year. Alitalia has not reported a full-year profit since 2002.
Its new strategy under Ball focuses on operating more long-haul routes, especially to fast-growing Asian countries including China, buying new and more efficient planes, upgrading technology and making use of the international network of Etihad. Asked what happens if this turnaround takes longer than a year, Ball says simply: “No, no. Failure is not an option.”