Honestly, if you asked me 10 years ago if I would be the proud owner of an airline before I turned 30 I would have laughed. Working in the industry perhaps… But owning an entire airline? No.
But here I am at 31 years of age, the CEO of a regional airline in New Zealand called Air Napier. So how did this come to pass?
Well, I have always had a passion for planes – a passion for anything that flies really. Born in Pakistan, raised in Japan and getting my higher education in New Zealand – I had been on my fair share of planes. So, once I completed my MBA at Otago University and NUS in Singapore, I applied for jobs at airlines and airports hoping to be part of this exciting industry. However, the corporate officers in charge of hiring failed to see the passion, competence or excitement that I brought to the table. I don’t blame them as obviously they lacked the passion for what they were doing.
Consequently, I went into banking where I wiled away a few years in corporate finance specializing in leveraged buyouts and mergers & acquisitions. While I enjoyed every minute and made great contacts (those who have helped me get to where I am) I constantly had aviation rearing its head in the subconscious. Then after a restless night I got up at 2am and logged onto the internet and made the happy discovery that Air Napier – an airline that has been around since 1993 - was put up for sale. I had an offer on the table by 9am that same morning.
Air Napier was a decent buy as it had all the basic infrastructure setup for an airline. It also allowed us to get into the heavily regulated industry over a period of three months, as opposed to more than a year if we were to set up a new airline.
Now I am not saying taking over has been easy, it hasn’t. What is has been is frustrating, challenging, and a steep learning curve. I can tell you now it was not what I thought it was going to be like, it definitely wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. But in the same breath I can also say that I am absolutely loving it.
For instance, I didn’t think there would be as many roadblocks as there have been. And I thought the aviation community as a whole would be better organized and structured. But instead I soon discovered is that it is every man for himself. Quite frankly, from my casual observations it is a self-interest that has filtered down from the CEOs of the bigger companies in the industry.
The reluctance to commit to the importance of regional connectivity from the local councils has been a bit of a surprise. Even the Wright Brothers realized a demand for air travel a 100 years ago.
Across the country regional economic activity has picked up in recent years and they are starting to ask the questions about regional connectivity. A regional airline is more relevant to regional development and productivity than ever before.
In saying that however, on the other side of the coin are people who have genuinely supported Air Napier and what I have been up to over the last two years. There is the local District Health Board team, New Zealand Post, Flight Care, Primary Avionics to mention a few. It is working alongside people like this that has kept us going.
Another highlight is surviving these two years. Two years of people saying you are only going to last a week, a month three months. I mean Air Napier’s survival odds were paying more than the odds of the All Blacks losing to Australia (although after the last loss that may not be true anymore). From a cocky egotistical point of view, proving all those who said we couldn’t do it wrong, has been pretty spectacular.
More so that within those two years we have been able to turn a business around and create a good working culture here at the office, with our key stakeholders and the wider community even though I was constantly being judged in an industry that has little to no diversity.
And in the face of all of this we survived Covid-19. While the bigger players freaked out by cutting flights and thousands of jobs while at the same time applying for billion-dollar loans, we survived. We did this by not panicking and after an initial period of uncertainty we just picked up where we left off and by pivoting into areas we had never thought about before such as pet flights.
As a result, we kept Napier connected with New Zealand and remained the crucial freighting link between Napier, Wairoa and Gisborne throughout the crisis. So that is a big win for us.
Shah's way into the airline industry
So if you want to know how to buy an airline by the time you are 30:
Apply for a job at an airport or an airline
Be passionate during the interview (because some so-called management guru has written that all those who are passionate should not be hired)
Get rejected from the job for being passionate
Get pissed off
Make an illogical decision to buy an airline
Place a bet on yourself to last (because the odds will be very high, but shhh only you know that)
Then work your ass off to prove the naysayers wrong
I did and I did so through a pandemic that decimated this industry and all its mighty heroes. Not only is Air Napier still here two years later, it is bigger and better than it has ever been.
Bring on 2021!