Former HH pupil makes Comair rock

Comair CEO Erik Venter, flanked by Andre du Toit and Sylvia Malinowski, conveners of the Cape Business Connect networking event held recently at The Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West. Mr Venter delivered the keynote address at the event.

The man who runs Comair doesn’t set personal goals, because he simply wants to go along and enjoy the ride.

He also decided to study accounting, because the aptitude test he did at UCT before starting his studies said he shouldn’t.

“I said ‘I’m going to study accounting because you said I shouldn’t,’” Erik Venter explains, and it is this can-do attitude that has equipped him to take Comair to where it is today: the oldest privately owned, and consistently profitable, airline in the world.

Mr Venter told his story last week, as keynote speaker at the Cape Business Cape Connect mega-connect event at The Lord Charles Hotel.

Born and raised in Somerset West, Mr Venter attended Somerset West Primary (1976-1981) and Hottentots Holland High School (1982-1987) – before before completing a BComm and a post graduate accounting diploma at UCT.

He was on his way to Zimbabwe in 1996, for a month- long holiday, when a friend of his dad’s – a recruitment consultant – persuaded him to attend an interview for the position of financial manager at Comair. “My dad’s friend sent me off in his car for the interview, and they called later that night to say I had the job.”

Not only did he get the job; Comair also gave him a free air ticket to Zimbabwe: “Which meant I didn’t have to take the bus.”

It was about this time that Comair acquired the BA franchise, giving it the marketing clout of the bigger name.

Twenty years on, in some of the toughest trading conditions the airline industry has ever known, he is at the helm of the only private airline company that has not fallen prey to the predatory business practices of SAA, he said.

Mr Venter is overt in his characterisation of the national carrier as the “villain” – recounting how one after the other, private airline companies – FliteStar, OneTime, Velvet Sky and more – have come and gone. He notes that SAA’s sheer size allows it to dominate the market by, for example, undercutting smaller competitors in times of high fuel prices, and riding out the losses, which the smaller players are incapable of doing.

His can-do attitude has led to Comair achieving goals where other larger airlines have failed, for example in the manipulation of big data for marketing purposes, with a focus on personalising the customer experience consistently at individual level. “I recall discussing this in a meeting in Europe with people from a number of major airlines. Everybody said they knew it was the right thing to do, but didn’t know how to make it work, and we’d already done it.”

In an industry where margins are wafer thin, how does one consistently make a profit, year in and year out? “I think it’s a good thing we have such a dominant competitor, because it results in a level of paranoia that keeps us thinking ahead.”

“People ask me why I stay in the airline industry. I do because it is a constant challenge. One never knows what’s coming next,” he says. “It’s hard to make a profit, but I enjoy the challenge.”

But beyond that, Comair has a unique culture that attracts people, and causes them to want to stay.

“We talk about the Comair family. You’re part of the family, not just an employee,” he explains. “Most people don’t realise it until they’ve left and come back again, or when something goes wrong.” He recounts the story of a pilot grounded for medical conditions who wrote letter which he sent to staff throughout the company via email, saying he’d never actually understood what it meant to be a part of the Comair family, never understood the level of support he would get when he couldn’t work. “People write these long letters to everybody in the company saying ‘be grateful for what you get’,” he says.

The result? “It really ties people into the organisation. You get people who are so committed, that they really put the effort in, and that’s all that we really want. As soon as you get people putting in the effort, they start to think ‘how I they better the business’. You don’t have to have deliberate interventions to get innovation, because people are always thinking what’s best for the organisation.”

And the looking after is not necessarily financial. Mr Venter explains: “It’s the airline business, we don’t make a killing, it’s not like a bank that can pay enormous salaries, so the people who are in it just for the money tend to disappear quite fast, they don’t stick around, but the people who stick around are the ones who really want that sense of belonging.”

“I don’t want to make it sound to idealistic, but there are people who just don’t fit in. They tend be driven out by the majority, so it doesn’t work for everyone.”

“We are having challenges with the new generation and that sense of entitlement, that the company must do everything for them, and such issues. But that’s part of the challenge, adapting the whole leadership strategy to accommodate a new generation of people and the way they think, and educating then about the real world, rather than this imaginary world where they just get everything that they want,” says Mr Venter.

“All these pieces have to fit into the puzzle. There is no single unique piece that makes it work.”

Bolander asked Mr Venter what, in his opinion, is likely to happen at SAA: “The problem is that once you’ve lost all of that management and expertise, it’s really hard to turn it around,” he says. “A lot of the key skills have been driven out of (SAA) the company. We (Comair) struggle to find skills for our own company in South Africa, and we’re small compared to SAA, so at the moment we’re recruiting overseas to find the skills that we need. People are leaving SAA and the positions are just not being filled, so where does it go from there?”

“At an operational level, just flying the aircraft, it all still looks fine, so it’s almost like a car rolling downhill. You don’t realise the engine is missing because its rolling downhill. Once it gets to the bottom of the hill, you realise it won’t be able to go up the other side,” Mr Venter says by way of analogy.

“When the cash actually runs out, or the banks say they are not prepared to lend against government guarantees anymore, what will happen then?” he concludes.

The charming story of Lady, a rescue dog from Grabouw Township, unfolded at the Cape Business Connect event, when Kim Slabber of Helping Animals Together (HAT), approached Erik Venter with plea for assistance.

After losing an eye, Lady was returned to her owners, but a subsequent leg injury discovered during a follow-up visit at Lady’s home resulted in her being surrendered to Hat. The leg eventually healed, and Lady went into foster care in Hermanus.

“A wonderful family in JHB would like to adopt her and we were trying to figure out how to get her to them,” Ms Slabber told Bolander, “so with the encouragement of Andre du Toit of Cape business Connect, I approached Erik Venter, told him about Lady, and asked if he could help. ‘Sure,’ he said, and now Lady will be flying to her new family in Johannesburg, compliments of Comair.”

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