When Sauda Rajab was announced to the position of Group Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Precision Air, her heart must have skipped.
The airline which was established in 1993, as a private charter service operating a five-seater Piper Aztec aircraft, was in deep financial trouble, with huge costs which arose from lack of proper systems and no sufficient cash to sustain its growth.
There was more on her table that needed immediate attention and action. Some difficult decisions needed to be made. But Rajab was prepared for it, at least she had hinted.
In 1989, when she was interviewed for as a management trainee, she told the panel that she would one day be the company’s first female managing director. They probably thought it was all hot air.
Hard work paid off
Rajab is a graduate of the University of Nairobi with at least 25 years’ experience in airline senior management experience in both sales and operations.
“I have extensive leadership training from the London Business School, University of Pretoria and Christchurch, Oxford,” she adds.
With her credentials, she went in for results at Precision Air. First she needed to contain the costs because they were simply too high.
On March 1, 2013 when she was announced CEO, she took her seat in a spacious office in Dar es Salaam but she did not have much time to relax and sip on coffee. She needed to act, and real fast because her job was to save Precision Air from near collapse. With human resource retrenchment, some employees were let go. Since the company was getting rid of equipment, pilots who operated Boeings had to leave. Processes were also reviewed and for the last four years, the new CEO has been trying to bridge gaps and close more loopholes.
“There was also a lot of wastage. There was a lot of money that was going out through loopholes since there were no systems to track outflows of cash. When I came in, we had to put a lot of systems in place and come up with procedures so as to stop the haemorrhage, as I might call it,” she adds. With no systems, money was misused.
And being a woman, this was an opportune moment because, as she argues, women have been known to make ends meet. “Turning around Precision Air is something that came naturally to me because I was used to living within a budget, even at home. At the end of the day, it helped because every small step that we took helped. We kept asking ourselves how we could do things in the shortest and cheapest way possible.”
An airline in recovery
Under Rajab’s leadership, the airline has recovered its engines, particularly of the planes that could not be fixed as a result of inadequate funds. It had dropped to operating three planes but the number has grown to seven aircraft. And as she scratched her head for solutions, Rajab saw another opportunity in the adversity.
At the hollow end of manning a recuperating enterprise, she has reason to smile. Four years down the road, she is confident that with the recovery, Precision Air can do with an investment boost, an opportunity for someone to inject their money and get it back.
On her wish list is expansion of the airline to further tap into East Africa’s big population. She can partly achieve this by lowering airfare so that more people can be able to afford fly and travel.
However, she decries the high taxes levied by government which ultimately make the fares unaffordable to the majority travellers. One third of the air ticket fare goes to government taxes.
To her, governments ought to see things differently just as those who expect a different approach from her as a top female executive.
An executive first, a woman later
“It has not entered my mind that I am a female top executive because for the longest time I have been in the airline business, I have been a manager and I still think myself as one”.
She adds, “I do not know if it has something to do with the way a woman is wired. We look at things differently. Men are used to networking and helping each other out. Having worked as a manager for some time, I have gained experience working with teams. Also, women are known to lead through consensus and there, we interrelate with teams at home and at work.”
Nonetheless, she also observes that women have to make twice the effort than men in order to be recognised, for example working extra before they are recognised.
Sauda’s star has shone bright. She has been General Manager Kenya, Regional General Manager - Europe, Americas and Asia. Prior to joining Precision she was the Kenya Airways General Manager Cargo.
And as she goes about her work, some observations seem obvious. “Sometimes I feel like this is a men’s club. The airline industry has been dominated by men for a long time. I believe men have their own talents but strongly believe that women can also be able to do the same jobs. Women need to be given the opportunity,” Precision Air’s Group Managing Director implores.
She says she has been able to succeed in a male-dominated field by staying focused, having firm resolve and belief in self. Nonetheless, a unique challenge she constantly faces is always trying to prove herself to men. She implores society to appreciate women as good managers too.
When asked about the perks of her job, she cheekily says that apart from grey hair, not much. Her motivation on the job is passion for the airline business. “The constant need to innovate and transform (is what motivates me),” Precision Air’s CEO adds.
Leading Precision Air Services is her biggest achievement. “It has taught me lifelong lessons I would not have learnt in any business school.”
Work seems to take much of her time but family has its time. “I have no children of my own. However, I have helped raise many. What I learnt is that you must always keep time for family. Be there on special occasions and when most needed, and ensure an open line of communication always.”
To relax, she walks, reads and does household chores. She is a good dancer and a passionate cook with coastal influence. She will twist a salad and create something new.
What it takes to be an airline CEO
According to the aviation career website www.avjobs.com in their weekly career profile, while pilots enjoy one of the more visible careers in the airline industry, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is the person eventually responsible for all the good (and bad) that occurs at an airline. This is a high-stress job (to say the least) but those individuals that help guide a carrier to profitability seem to enjoy an almost rock-star status in the industry.
Being the CEO of an airline is not the kind of job that someone just slips into. Typically these airline big wigs worked their way up the corporate ranks.
In some cases, they have been recruited from similar positions in other industries. Historically, most airline CEOs have spent a considerable amount of time in some type of the management structure.
Sauda Rajab is a graduate from the University of Nairobi with at least 25 years’ experience in airline senior management experience in both sales and operations.
Rajab joined Kenya Airways in 1989 as a management trainee and rose up the ranks holding various positions in the airline, including General Manager Kenya, Regional General Manager - Europe,Americas and Asia.Prior to joining Precision she was the Kenya Airways General Manager Cargo.
“I have extensive leadership training from the London Business School, University of Pretoria (in South Africa) and Christchurch, Oxford (in England),” says Rajab.
Other female airline heads
In 2010, 15 airlines had appointed a female to the role of CEO or MD.
In 2014 (according to Skift Travel report), the number of women taking the reins of large, small, legacy and low-cost carriers revealed that women accounted for fewer than five per cent of all airline CEOs.
Only twelve out of the 248 airlines operating worldwide were led by women.
Of those, six women led full-service airlines, four led low-cost carriers, and two were at subsidiaries. The ten airlines were spread throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, but no North American airlines made the list.
By 2015, that number ticked to 18.
Of those, five women were employed at group airlines: LCC AirAsia, had three women in leadership positions, while Avianca had two. By way of a yardstick, International Air Transport Association (IATA), represents 252 airlines alone - using this number, that implies only six per cent of those represented have appointed a woman to the senior executive level position.
The first African woman to start an airline (Fly Blue Crane), Siza Mzimela is South Africa’s first female airline CEO and the first woman to be appointed a member of the governing board of the IATA in 70 years.
In July this year, Farzaneh Sharafbafi, then director general of Iran Air’s research department, was appointed first-ever woman to head the national flag carrier.
She is also the first Iranian woman with a PhD in aerospace. She has already implemented several aviation projects and has taught various aerospace courses.