countless quotable quotes about the airline industry that should put any sane individual off running one of them. “If the Wright brothers were alive today,” wrote Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, “Wilbur would have to fire Orville to reduce costs.”
Let that act as a warning if you are mulling over an offer from the board of SAA.
Being CEO of the national carrier is our prime candidate. Can it really be turned around? Can it ever be a sustainable self-funding business given the fact that the State regards it as a strategic asset – crucial to the process of carrying the national f lag to foreign territories and bringing back hordes of tourists and business travellers at a reasonable rate? Run as a loss-leader – that strategy might pay off but taxpayers are increasingly frustrated by the fact that Government keeps providing the airline with support – an estimated R16bn in just over 10 years.
The job is available and the most obvious South African candidate for the position has not been approached.
Chris Smythe was acting CEO after Khaya Ngqula and did a solid job at ensuring f lights got off the ground and landed on schedule. Nowadays, he is FD at hot technology company Pinnacle. The airline even turned a small profit during his tenure. But he left when it became clear he would not be made full-time CEO.
Rather the position was filled by Siza Mzimela, then CEO of SA Express. When the SAA AGM had to be postponed this year, it raised questions too about the quality of the books at SA Express. There is a process underway to resolve the problems over several years. Mzimela quit just days after a top level board walkout which saw, among others, respected business leaders like Cheryl Carolus and Russel Loubser leave in frustration at not being able to fulfil their obligations due to the refusal up until that point of the State to provide either the capital or the necessary guarantees to do what the board felt necessary to drive a turnaround.
Profit does not appear to be its overarching motive. On that basis alone, that should make it a pretty cushy job. But of the four CEOs, excluding Smythe, name one who has left the organisation over the past dozen years who has left with reputation f irmly intact. Head hunters are falling over themselves to fill a job that will earn them a lucrative commission.
“Who would want it?” asks Paul Theron, MD of Vestact. “Your board is like a toy telephone, the directors might as well all quit now. Everybody knows that Gigaba calls the shots. It’s like being appointed as chief of Lada in the old Soviet Union, then told that you have to run all your ideas past Gosplan.”