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‘Never say never!’

Better known as the 'Aviation man', SriLankan Airlines CEO Peter Hill speaks to Anita Sharan about his11 years with the Emirates as its commercial manager.

business Updated: Dec 05, 2007 23:02 IST
Anita Sharan
Anita Sharan
Hindustan Times

He calls himself an “aviation man”. Yet the “60-something” Peter Hill co-owned and ran a pub, The Constitution, for two years in Camden Town, UK. In 1996, after 11 years with the Emirates as its commercial manager—he was one of the airline’s founding members—he felt burnt out and went home to the UK.

Till Emirates beckoned with an offer to run SriLankan Airlines as its CEO. “Running a pub is not the same as running an airline. It was too good an offer to refuse.” And as advice: “Never burn your boats. It’s always good to leave your employer on great terms.” It could also be that he got too used to being an expatriate executive. “I’ve spent only 10 per cent of my working life in the UK.” The remaining has been in the Caribbean, Uganda, Bahrain, Dubai and Sri Lanka, all in aviation.

So on April 1, 1998, Hill started off at Colombo, seconded by Emirates to the government-owned (51 per cent stake) SriLankan. Emirates has a 43 per cent stake in the airline and management rights through a contract that will come up for renewal in 2008.

Today, Hill feels good about turning SriLankan Airlines around. It no longer needs government handouts, having become profitable, though profit levels are dependent on the socio-political conditions in Sri Lanka. In a good year, such as 2004-05, SriLankan made $60 million profit, says Hill. In other years, profit has ranged between $6-12 million. “Hopefully, we will close March 31, 2008, with profits exceeding $15 million.”

Two important challenges have been the employees and the government. “We inherited a good bunch of people but they lacked direction.” Also, the airline was used to seeing the management change every time the government changed. “Employees were grossly underpaid; we overhauled the pay conditions. You need to give everyone a feeling of worth and then ask for performance.” Good performance measurements, a performance reward system, decision-making empowerment, encouragement of poor performers, were quickly effected. “Passing the buck stopped; people started taking ownership of issues and working as a team. Sri Lankans aspire for jobs with us today.”

Proud achievements also include SriLankan’s run in India. “Four-and-a-half years ago, I was in Delhi for a convention. We were doing 37 flights a week in India and when I said that by 2008, we were targeting 100 flights a week, I faced disbelief. Today, we are doing 100 flights to 11 destinations in India.” Hill cites his most difficult and time-consuming challenge as the one of managing a balance between government expectations and running a commercially viable operation. “Governments love being involved in successful businesses. Perhaps it would be better for a government to agree on a business plan with the management and then leave the professional team to effect it.”

So what’s next? He plans to move on when he turns 65: “It’s a young people’s business”. Back to running a pub? No, no, he protests: “I’d be happy to sit back and help, maybe as a consultant.” Always leave an employer on good terms and all that. So not another airline, right? Quips Hill: “Never say never!”