Cramer Ball

An Aussie at Al­i­talia

The Australian - The Deal - - News - Story by: Da­mon Kit­ney Da­mon Kit­ney trav­elled to Rome courtesy of Eti­had/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.”

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