Ethiopia: Ato Girma Wake, Godfather of the African Sky

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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.

Double-digit growth

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.

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