Eric Born took up the post of CEO of global handler Swissport on 1 August 2015. He talks to AGS about his first year in that role and how he sees the company – and the industry – going forward
A Swiss national, Born holds a BBA from the University of Applied Science in Zurich and an MBA from Simon Business School at the University of Rochester NY. He came to Swissport from a background in retail, logistics and aviation services, including six years as CEO at Wincanton and four years at John Menzies plc as a non-executive director.
Q. You’ve been in post as CEO of Swissport for just over a year now. What were the challenges involved in adapting and settling in to your new role, and how did you overcome them?
A. There haven’t been that many challenges actually. I used the first few months to travel and meet with colleagues and customers so I could get a good insight into our strengths and development areas. As far as things to overcome are concerned, we have grown relatively rapidly – and a lot of that has been through acquisitions such as Servisair. When you have two companies of this size, the change is not perfectly digested everywhere so we did have some operational challenges in the beginning but we have dealt with them well since then.
I have a different leadership style but that’s not been an issue. Rather than multiply filtered information, I prefer honest interaction and open discussion so we can all see what’s really going on – the opportunities, where we can improve or develop, the good, the bad, what is needed… I encourage my teams to have discussions and there is perhaps more emphasis on this now than there was prior to my time here. Our role here in management is to get the company to perform well.
Q. Can you also give an overview of how things were at Swissport when you joined – the context in terms of financial performance, for instance?
A. Things were ok. They were interesting times in the sense that there was interest from the current shareholders (HNA Group) in purchasing the company from PAI Partners when I joined. I was still working for the old shareholder for the first seven months, so there was no change, which gave me a great opportunity to learn the culture of the business. There are in fact multiple cultures by station or country, which is not surprising given our merger and acquisition activity that has got the company to where it is today. Now, we are working towards a common culture that values accountability and where employees are encouraged to step up and speak up.
The business continues to perform well. Our revenue development plans are where we want them to be. Our biggest cost is labour while there is also a push on price from the airlines. We have to optimise our productivity, follow best practices and ensure consistent quality at each station.
Q. Have you made any changes as CEO? How far have you managed to take these changes up to now, and are you happy with how they’re going?
A. Part of the changes has been to give people the opportunity to speak up, listen and share their ideas. Another part is that after the transaction in February and the meeting with the new shareholders, there was a change to the top management team so that we are a single company with a single team. Three people left, a new CFO joined and the role of COO was created – rather than having three EVPs at the head of three divisions, which created silos that were not cohesive. Everyone on the team is aligned with our key priorities.
Q. What are your plans for taking the company forward over the coming years?
A. The overall aim is to further develop the organisation, leveraging on our operational practices across the globe. When you buy from Swissport, you get Swissport whether you’re in Africa, the Middle East, America or Europe. There is consistency and quality. We are managing not just today but the future so we are building on our leading position. We are strong in Europe, North America, Africa and Latin America but the Middle East and Asia offer significant room for our future geographic expansion. We have plans in place for that. It’s part of our focus – for instance, in China with HNA Group as our shareholder. I envisage we will have operations up and running in China within the next 12 months.
Q. Do you think the ground handling industry as a whole needs to change in any way(s)? If so, why – and how might this be achieved? What role is Swissport taking to support this agenda?
A. Safety is a key focus; training programmes and tools must be provided. Equally, aircraft damage, near misses and so on are important. You have to have clear targets for each station and country. We have significantly beefed up our support for health and safety and quality because we want to continue to reduce accident rates and not damage equipment. As an industry, we all need to do more. As the largest player, Swissport has a responsibility to lead that initiative.
You have to ask how well is the first line trained? Do they immediately correct their behaviour? It is a day-to-day business objective, and a responsibility, to operate safely. Governments and other authorities can help but it has to start at the level of individual businesses. People need to take accountability and ownership at a local level, there has to be a behavioural change, while we (that is, the management) help them centrally and regionally.
The key issues for the industry include service quality, training, health and safety and the reliability of ground ops. Our industry should never cut corners here – that is non-negotiable.
At the same time, there is pressure on prices from the customer. How do we optimise the cost/quality equation? We have to be able to generate a return in order to invest in the business at a market-clearing price. A certain level of quality is expected and you have to deliver. You can do a certain amount for efficiency – but it has to be within these non-negotiable cornerstones. From what I’ve seen while travelling, as an industry, we should be very mindful of this.
Q. What are your hopes for the future?
A. I will be further developing our leadership position, taking us to the next level of performance and corporate maturity. I’m incredibly pleased at the amount of commitment, at all levels of the business, to go the extra mile on a day-to-day basis in a business that, depending on geography, can be a very tough job. I’ve been extremely positively surprised. This is a great platform to work with – it’s very fertile soil if you want to drive plans to further improve and expand.