Ato Girma Wake, the 79-year-old former CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, has been recalled as chairman of the board of the group whose ambitious development he led in the early 2000s.
Build a clear roadmap and stick to it. Convince all employees. Focus on training staff. Take care of governance by not mixing politics and the company’s management, even in the case of public companies.
Over a 50-plus-year career in African aviation, the mantras of former Ethiopian CEO Girma Wake have not changed one iota.
He was destined for the army and says he arrived at Ethiopian Airlines “by chance”, to fellow comrades who were taking aptitude tests.
Wake, who was appointed the group’s chairman at the end of March following the resignation of the company CEO Tewolde GebreMariam, is now considered a “titan” of the sector on the continent.
Hired in 1965 in what was then a very small company under US management (it was founded at the end of World War II as a joint venture with the American company TWA), Wake went through various departments: from the flight academy to training. He was then appointed country manager in Ghana, Tanzania, and then Germany.
“Ethiopia needed competent national staff to gradually take over the company, so we were given a lot of opportunities: to go abroad, to train… I always loved learning and travelling. That’s why I stayed,” he said in an interview with CNBC in May 2019. He also congratulated himself on the fact that his children had grown up in different countries, and learned other languages and cultures.
In 1993, he left Ethiopian for Gulf Air, where he stayed for 11 years – two of them on secondment to DHL Mena – before being recalled to take over the Ethiopian company’s general management.
After the American firms Ernst & Young and SH&E carried out an audit, an ambitious strategy called Vision 2010 was born. “At the time, we had a turnover of $300m and annual passenger traffic of around one million people. With the new strategy, we needed to reach a billion-dollar turnover and 3 million passengers per year within five years. We accomplished that within four years,” Wake told CNBC.
A charismatic leader
According to him, the first challenge was to convince each employee to invest in this strategy, which was so ambitious that many thought it was unattainable. “We had to go from very slow annual growth, in the order of 7% to 8%, to growth of 20% to 25%,” he says.
“He is a humane and charismatic leader. He is very well regarded by both the employees and the government because he is always positive,” says Mesfin Tasew, the company’s current CEO, who worked under his direct supervision as director of information technology and then as vice-president in charge of maintenance and engineering.
When he was leading the Addis Ababa-based carrier’s development, Wake was also involved in the establishment of the private airline Asky – in which he never held an official position. “During the initial phase of the company’s creation, the founder, Gervais Koffi Djondo, negotiated with him to build the strategic partnership between the two companies,” says Nowel Ngala, commercial director of the Lomé-based carrier in which Ethiopian took a 25% stake.
In 2011, Wake retired as he felt that he had accomplished his mission. “I felt that it was up to someone younger to carry the next strategy, Vision 2025, which we had developed internally this time,” he says. He was then appointed president of Rwandair, a position he held from 2012 to 2017, before returning to Ethiopian in 2018 as a director.
A Girma-Wake award
At Rwandair, “while the day-to-day management was carried out by the general manager [at the time John Mirenge], Girma Wake expanded its fleet and destinations,” says Osei Kojo Cobbina, director of the Rwandan company’s flight operations. He describes the president as “pleasant and a good listener, who was keen to share his knowledge”.
It is well known that Wake is always ready to give advice to heads of state (notably in Rwanda, DRC, and Togo), airline CEOs, and all those who show interest in African aviation.
Jon Howell – founder of AviaDev Africa, an annual event dedicated to aviation development on the African continent that Wake has sponsored since 2017 – hails Wake as a man who is “straightforward and never afraid to ask or answer tough questions”.
“I first met him in 2016 when we were launching AviaDev Africa in Rwanda and he was president of Rwandair. He was enthusiastic about my project,” says the Briton who sees Wake as “an inspiration and whose advice is always much appreciated”.
A prize in his name is awarded each year to the person who has contributed the most to the African aviation sector. This award has been given to Raphaël Kuuchi, then vice-president of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and Chris Zweigenthal, former director-general of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) and Adefunke Adeyemi, Iata’s regional director for Africa, in charge of advocacy and strategic relations.
From Rwandair to the African Open Sky
In Togo, Wake is mainly involved in implementing the African Open Sky, of which President Faure Gnassingbé is a fervent advocate, as he is convinced that companies will have more chances to develop in a larger market.
However, even though it has been ratified by 35 countries, which represent 85% of continental traffic, the Single African Air Transport Market is struggling to become a reality. This could change within the post-pandemic context, says Wake.
The problem is that there are a lot of small carriers in Africa that mainly need financial assistance.
“Closing borders has made states aware of the importance of good connectivity,” he said in October 2020, during a webinar hosted by AviaDev.
Wake also advocates increased cooperation between African airlines, under the umbrella of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA).
“The problem is that there are a lot of small carriers in Africa that mainly need financial assistance, and very few African airlines that have the capacity to provide this financial assistance to their counterparts, but in areas such as training, maintenance and sharing capacities as well as personnel, I think a lot can be done,” he said in the same speech.
Forays into Ethiopian finance
In addition to his involvement in African aviation, Wake has worked in Ethiopian finance. In 2011, he briefly chaired the Ethiopian insurance company United Insurance, which accumulated 597.4m birr ($11m) in total premiums during the 2019-2020 fiscal year. He resumed this position – which he relinquished in 2012 to focus on Rwandair – from 2016 to 2018.
He is also a founding member, shareholder, and the current chairman of Ethio Lease, the first subsidiary of the African Asset Finance Company (AAFC), a US-based equipment leasing company and the first foreign-owned company that has been licensed to provide financial services in Ethiopia.