Girma Wake: a ‘Crazy’ Story at Ethiopian Airlines
By Kirubel Tadesse
The former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ethiopian Airlines Girma Wake is among the most celebrated persons in the nation. He famously led the airlines during its most successful years when it first topped the continent as the most profitable airliner. Looking back at Girma’s long years of service for Ethiopian Airlines, one would see a true spirit of an Ethiopian success, one that was achieved against all odds that first suggested otherwise.
Born in Yeka area of Addis Ababa in 1943, Girma attended elementary education in Dejazimatch Wondiyirad School. After studying grade nine at day school in Kebena area, he completed the rest of high school in then HaileSilassie secondary school at Kotebe-the present Teachers’ Training College.
It was then time for university. Back in his college days, the country’s sole higher education institution had a place for competent students like Girma. He joined the university college of Addis Ababa, now known as Addis Ababa University. That is when he first connected with Ethiopian Airlines.
“I went to the university college of Addis Ababa, the Arat Kilo campus from where I was recruited by Ethiopian Airlines when I was a second year student. I used to play volley ball, basket ball and other sports for my schools throughout my student days. In fact I played for Ethiopian Airlines’ volleyball team for about six months before I joined ET,” Girma says remembering his campus life.
It was in 1965 when Girma joined the airlines. At that time the flag carrier’s management was dominated by foreigners, predominately Americans from Trans World Airlines. That, however, was no barrier for Girma to excel in his work all the way from the junior post eventually to the top job.
Nearly for three decades Girma called the airlines home, serving in various posts, and various destinations.
As disputes between the government and the airline rattled a rather stable state company, more than few senior management staff left Ethiopian Airlines. Girma too left the airlines in 1993. He took offers abroad including at the Gulf Air where he served as a head of cargo.
Ethiopia’s former Foreign Affairs Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, was appointed to chair the board of directors supervising the national flag carrier. Disputes between the management and the government seemed settled.
Back in 2003 Seyoum made a rare phone call to the Kingdom of Bahrain. At the time the country’s top diplomat was not looking for an official of the government there, which would be the case if the call was to any other country. On the other end of the phone was Girma Wake who only knew the senior minister on Ethiopian Television. Seyoum wanted to personally offer Girma, then an employee of Gulf Air, the top job at Ethiopian Airlines.
Unfortunately Girma just signed a new contract with Gulf Air.
“I agreed to meet Ato Seyoum since I come to Ethiopia every three months for a vacation. I planned to convince him to give the job to another person; one reason was I was 60 at that time which is the official age for retirement here,” Girma recollected. “Also, there are usually a number of professionals competing whenever Ethiopian Airlines put out new posts; so I thought I would convince the minister to give the job to one of them.”
Girma came to Addis Ababa and met Seyoum who did the convincing after which Girma agreed to lead Ethiopian for five years.
“When I told my former boss at the Gulf Air that I have to abandon my new contract and move back to Ethiopian Airlines, he asked me ‘are you crazy?’. I replied that everybody is somewhat crazy,” Girma explained how he ‘reconnected’ with the airlines as he put it.
Returning as Chief Pilot
What happened at Ethiopian Airlines between 2004 and 2010 when Girma was the CEO is anything but crazy; a drive that helped the carrier to reach new heights no other African carrier came close to.
Ethiopian has been always strong but when Girma became its CEO in February 2004 it had only twelve jetliners. It carried 1.2 million passengers annually to 42 international and 16 domestic destinations.
Girma spent most of 2004 devising a bold plan with assistance from the locally based Ernst and Young team. Then he followed a five year strategic plan: Vision 2010 that was launched in 2005. Pundits remained skeptical about the ambitious plan that targeted the airlines to evolve into a billion dollar company.
Nobody then saw how the homecoming of Girma, who joined Ethiopian at age 22 as a student, was about to change the image of the airline once and for all.
Nevertheless, the phrase ‘a record’ was suddenly a culture at Ethiopian; in less than a year since Girma took office the airlines grew by 20 percent. Operating revenues skyrocketed by 26 percent to amount more than half a billion dollars in 2004/05, an impressive start of the five year plan.
Consecutively and consistently in the remaining four years of the plan, the airlines grew by an average 25 percent and became a billion dollar company by 2009- one year ahead of the target. The 1.2 million passengers the airline used to carry annually in 2004/05 and the fleet size have both tripled in his years.
The growth of Ethiopian has also been reflected in profits it pockets: from just 269 million birr it grew to 1.3 billion birr under Girma’s leadership. In a deserving coincidence, now that Girma left office in January 2011, Ethiopian was declared Africa’s most profitable airline, a record it still keeps. It is now the second biggest in Africa next to South Africa Airways and a carrier everyone likes to associate with. For example, before Girma, Ethiopian had a single code sharing agreement, but when he left it had twelve and was also unanimously accepted by Star Alliance as member.
Ethiopian Airlines is also investing elsewhere, more importantly in Africa. It is a strategic partner with a 25 percent stake in the new West African ASKY Airlines which is doing “marvelous” since it made its maiden flight in January 2010.
“We were allowed to do what we thought commercially and strategically right- that is our secret for success,” Girma said of the successes he modestly shared with the government and everyone he has worked with.
“The Airlines gave me lots of opportunities for commercial as well as management trainings abroad as well as in house. I served the airline for 34 years, seven of which were as CEO. When I retired after 45 years of service in the airline industry, I am very happy that I started and finished my service years with ET,” Girma added.
Even if he is almost hitting 70s, Girma is not a ready to call it a career and settle for a typical retirement. He is currently serving as a chairman of board of directors for Rwanda Air.
Girma, a father of five, and grandfather for seven will be celebrated forever whenever one looks at Ethiopian Airlines, a company that carries the nation’s aspirations by doing great even at times when the country didn’t.