in Air Transport / Features

Wonder Woman

Posted 12 February 2020 · Add Comment

Over the past 27 years, Zukisa (Zuks) Ramasia has seen many South African Airways (SAA) CEOs come and go, but she never expected to hold the role herself.

She joined the airline as cabin crew and worked her way through the ranks to become acting CEO. After being encouraged to aim high, Ramasia tells Victoria Moores she is facing the greatest challenge of her career – readying crisis-hit SAA for its next crucial chapter under someone else’s leadership.
“I was going to be a lecturer,” recalls Zuks Ramasia. With a huge smile and infectious energy, she goes on to tell the tale of how she got distracted from her studies and – 27 years later – found herself leading South Africa’s national carrier.
Ramasia was studying for her honours degree when SAA came to recruit flight attendants. “These people are distracting me,” she thought at the time, but then went for the interview anyway.
She got the job. Five years later, she was a crew safety trainer, before becoming an operations manager, handling cabin crew rostering. Then she got a place on a 24-month senior-management accelerator programme, with stints in various departments across the airline. After just 18 months, she was offered a job in finance, but her operations boss had other ideas. She picked operations and became senior manager for crew movements.
Less than two years on, the head of the operations control centre (OCC) resigned. He said: “I’m telling you, apply for this position.” This was an executive-level, head of department role that was usually held by ex-military personnel, or pilots – never a woman.
Ramasia was up against candidates with 20 years’ senior management experience. “You must know everything at any given time,” she said.
She applied and was promoted to oversee SAA’s air crew and fleet worldwide.
With a wry smile, Ramasia confessed that she spent the whole of the first year on edge, with her stomach churning. “I mustn’t break the airline,” was her mantra. “In the name of women, I mustn’t break the airline.”
Ramasia held that role, as SAA head of operations control, from 2005 to 2012. Her focus was on-time performance – she loved this clear and instant performance metric. “It went so well. We registered the best on-time performance in the world.”
This role tapped into Ramasia’s people-focused college studies – her specialisms were human resources development, psychology and teaching, before she was “distracted” into aviation. “I’m not the type to manage by sitting at a desk. I’m with the people.”
A key pillar of her management style is to teach and encourage people to take personal ownership. “I listen a lot. If I don’t take an idea, I give a reason. I make it easy to come and talk to me about the things that are not working. The people actually doing the work know exactly how to fix the shortcomings,” she said.
“I always reminded them, ‘It’s your operation, own it. This is your airline.’ As long as you see it as work, the commitment is less. Take it as an extension of your personality, or your life, and you will see it becomes better.”
Ramasia’s own path took another turn when she was promoted to SAA general manager operations in 2012. “I like those challenges that make my stomach churn – I don’t sleep, I become restless – I like that,” she said, still grinning.
“Again, historically, pilots were doing this job. If not a pilot, a man. I wanted to show women that it can be done – and it must done in a way that doesn’t change your personality by trying to be a man. I never wanted that. I want to be myself.”
Just as Ramasia received strong encouragement throughout her career, she is keen to mentor others into management roles, particularly women.
“When somebody wants to talk, even if I don’t have time, I say ‘come after hours. If you want to talk to me and you’re serious, let’s have a decent conversation.’ I always say to women, as you climb the ladder of success, you must always pick up at least another two woman to come with you. It gives me satisfaction to share my experience with other women, so they know it’s possible.”
As general manager operations, Ramasia oversaw SAA’s airline and airport activities worldwide, as well as crewing, operations control, quality audits, technical standards, safety and security.
“I am very content with running operations, I love it,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who just wants things to be done and see the results. I rectify bottlenecks quickly.”
Seven years on, Ramasia’s stomach had another wake-up call. SAA CEO, Vuyani Jarana, suddenly – and very publicly – resigned in mid-2019, voicing grievances about the government’s handling of the state-owned airline.
Very few people had the experience needed to step in because SAA had been through a revolving door of CEOs and the commercial department – which is a natural source of leadership succession – was among the worst affected. Meanwhile, operations had remained relatively stable.
“I’ve never actually applied for a CEO position. I’ve always thought I’m a supporter of the CEO,” said Ramasia. “I think this was the third time I’d been asked to act as CEO. The only reason I agreed was because I could see that the organisation was really hollowed. Most people were in acting roles and in commercial, which holds the company together, there was no leadership there. I felt I had a responsibility to step in.”
On June 10, 2019, Ramasia became acting CEO. “It was an instant resignation. They just wanted to plug in someone who already knows what to do. I know every division and I know who to go to. It is hard work, but it was a smooth transition and that’s where I am.”
Ramasia’s latest challenge was objectively stomach-churning. Just a few months after she became acting CEO, tensions between the staff, management and government escalated to crisis level.
Despite the airline’s critical financial situation, the unions were calling for pay increases – and a cabin crew and technicians’ strike left SAA virtually grounded for a number of days in November. At the time, Ramasia described the carrier’s financial position as “precarious” and cautioned that continued walkouts would risk “fatal damage” to the airline.
SAA had announced plans to cut 944 jobs, nearly a fifth of its 5,149 staff globally. The cuts are to be achieved through voluntary redundancies, early retirements and secondments to other airlines, where possible.
“It’s painful, but sometimes you need cut a limb to save the body,” Ramasia said.
Meanwhile, the airline’s financial situation had become a political hot potato, with the government refusing to plough in further funds.
“Over the last three years, the government has provided more than R20.5 billion ($1.4 billion) of fiscal support to SAA. No further financial resources can be advanced to the carrier,” public enterprises minister, Pravin Gordhan, said on November 19. “The government is facing severe fiscal constraints. Even if there were funds available, there is no legal mechanism to provide funding to SAA in the current year. The funds that government has committed to provide over the next three years have been earmarked for the repayment of SAA’s outstanding debt.”
Ramasia has seen a string of CEOs battling to turn around SAA’s fortunes. She believes SAA’s structural weaknesses go right back to its roots and that this, in turn, has hampered the airline’s ability to flourish.
“The problem with SAA has always been about liquidity and financials,” she said. “It was never capitalised properly.”
She acknowledges that “the shareholder has come to the party a lot”, but the financial injections have been fixing symptoms, rather than the root illness.
SAA is weighed down with high-interest historical debts, which have swallowed a huge amount of government money. Debt management is also a drain on internal resources, because it takes up time, energy and capital that could otherwise be redirected into the airline’s turnaround.
With government patience and financial resources wearing thin, SAA’s management is under pressure to create a self-sustaining operation, but Ramasia believes that the solution is within reach.
In 2013, SAA developed an internal long-term turnaround strategy (LTTS), which has since been verified by four external consultancy firms. Ramasia believes the fundamentals of this “very good strategy” remain valid.
“The problem became that revolving door,” she said. “When you start to see the needle [of change] moving, the person moves on and when you bring in another person, it creates some instability. There is nothing wrong with the strategy – it’s everything else, it’s implementation basically. Continuity makes a difference.”
This lack of continuity has also taken a serious toll on SAA’s staff. “People are fatigued with change. Sometimes they just want to talk,” she said. “I want to change the culture from fear to ownership.”
Ramasia meets with the unions each month to talk through details of the turnaround plan. “It is not a new strategy,” she said. “The difference is we need to accelerate implementing the same strategy.”
Another challenge has been slow decision-making, leading to the creation of a board implementation committee. This group meets every Wednesday to discuss decisions, which are then raised with the government – as shareholder – the following day during an hour-long call.
SAA has been also rebuilding its senior management, appointing new leaders for the commercial, network-planning and technical functions, as well as new chief information and group corporate officers.
Hiring back Mango CEO, Nico Bezuidenhout, from African low-cost carrier (LCC) Fastjet was another strategic step for SAA. Bezuidenhout is a company veteran, who left to join Fastjet in 2016. He helped develop SAA’s original LTTS in 2013 and, later, stepped in as SAA acting CEO to get the plan back on track.
“Our operations need to be able to carry themselves. The main thing is we need to increase revenue. We will look at all our routes, making sure the network is optimised. Everyone must look at costs,” said Ramasia.
“Each and every general manager needs to tell us what they will do to cut costs by 20%. Organisational design is on the table. That is unavoidable. We need to redesign our organisation so that it talks to our number of aircraft and number of staff. Productivity must go up.”
At the time of going to press, SAA was facing calls from the government and the Solidarity union to enter voluntary business rescue. “This is the only viable route open to the government to avoid an uncontrolled implosion of the national airline… and prevent liquidation applications by any of SAA’s creditors,” South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, said in a letter to the government on December 4.
A day later, SAA announced a its board had adopted a resolution to place the company into business rescue “at the earliest opportunity”.
The board statement continued: “SAA understands that this decision presents many challenges and uncertainties for its staff. The company will engage in targeted communication and support for all employee groups at this difficult time.”
The board said it would endeavour to operate a new provisional timetable and would also
announce the appointment of new business practitioners. It was keen to point out that services operated by its subsidiary airline, Mango, would continue as usual and as scheduled.
One measure that has previously been tabled is closer cooperation between the various state-owned South African airlines. SAA, regional airline SA Express, and LCC Mango, all share a common government shareholder, but they remain separate companies. Potential synergies are now being explored.
The problem is that each CEO has their own vested interest in their airline, so they have turned to Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier to give an airline-agnostic view on fleet and network strategy across the three carriers.
“These people want us to win,” Ramasia said. “The results are coming in now. Everything is on the table. We are open-minded.”
As a stop-gap, SAA will take four Airbus A350-900s on 36-month lease by the end of 2019. SAA ultimately plans to replace all eight of its A340s, swapping them one-for-one with A350s. This means four more A350s are still needed to complete this part of the fleet transition.
Bringing in new aircraft also has knock-on implications for the existing fleet. SAA has extended leases on around six A330-200s, which will now undergo cabin refurbishments.
SAA is satisfied with its A320 fleet as its preferred type for domestic and regional operations. However, Ramasia said evaluations are under way to replace SAA’s seven A319s.
Ramasia has challenged herself at every opportunity. However, when asked whether she saw herself as SAA’s permanent CEO, she replied: “I am not applying. It’s not on my bucket list.”
Some 27 years after getting “distracted” by aviation, she is returning to her original ambitions. “Remember, I said to you, I like teaching? I was intending to do my PhD and I was going to finish my career as a lecturer. My bucket list was that, in 2020, I’m going to do my PhD,” she said.
In line with Ramasia’s HR training, she had already lined up “at least four” successors who can step into her much-loved role as SAA general manager for flight operations.
And, likewise, she is now preparing to let go of SAA and hand it over to the next generation of leadership. “I think I’ve given as much as I can to the airline,” she said. 

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