Sitting with over 50 years of airline experience vivid on his face, Girma wake, often referred to as the Godfather of the African Sky, is a professional and successful guru in the aviation industry. At first sight, he is the highly-experienced and famous figure you see on news. However, a deeper interaction with him will reveal that he is a down-to-earth, individual. All these traits alongside his wealth of experience will be key to the success of Ethiopian Airlines where he was recently appointed chairman of the Board.
Ladies and gentleman, i present to you the King of the African Aviation Jungle.
Girma Wake, born 13 July 1943 is an airline industry executive who is currently serving as the Board Chairman of the Ethiopian Airlines Group. Girma was previously the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines from 2004 to 2011. Girma returned to the airline in 2018 by joining its board of directors. He served as the chairman of the Board of Directors of Rwandair until 2017
He attended the Dejazmatch Wondiyirad School and then the Kotebe Teacher’s College. He attended the University College of Addis Ababa, then the country’s only higher education institution. He was recruited in his second year by the airline.
Girma joined Ethiopian Airlines upon his graduation from the University College of Addis Ababa in 1965, then the country’s only higher education institution.
At the time, the airline was dominated by Americans, primarily from Trans-World Airlines (TWA), which had assisted in the airline’s development. Girma was one of the first Ethiopians to rise in the airline’s executive hierarchy and stayed at the airline for nearly three decades, until debates in 1993 between the new Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front government and the airline leadership led to several resignations, including that of Girma.
In November 2003, Seyoum Mesfin, then chairman of Ethiopian Airlines and minister of foreign affairs, offered Girma, who was at Gulf Air as head of cargo operations, the position of Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO. He was at first reluctant to take the position but eventually relented with the intention of only staying in the post for five years and also under a strict policy of serving the carrier without government interference under his leadership.
When Girma became CEO in February 2004, Ethiopian Airlines had only twelve jetliners. It carried 1.2 million passengers annually to 42 international and 16 domestic destinations. Girma spent most of 2004 devising a plan with assistance from the local branch of Ernst and Young.
After they 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.
However the plan was received with skepticism.
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.
Between 2005 and 2010 the airline grew at an average rate of 25% per annum. The 1.2 million passengers the airline used to carry annually when Girma took office almost tripled and now stood at 3.2 million by the end of the plan. The 12 planes the airline had increased by more than three-fold to 37, and the airline’s fleet was one of the youngest globally. The airline went from having one codeshare agreement to becoming a member of the Star Alliance, which it joined in 2011.
Under Girma, Ethiopian Airlines created 1,500 new jobs including 250 for foreigners. The profits the airline has made have significantly raised employees’ incomes by an average of 167 percent. Ethiopian also increased its presence in other African markets, forming a strategic partnership with West Africa’s ASKY Airlines, in which it has a 45% stake.
After he stepped down in 2011 and was replaced by Tewolde Gebremariam, Girma became chairman of the United Insurance Company but he quickly returned to the aviation sector in 2012 when became chairman of Rwandair, the flag carrier of Rwanda, a position he held until 2017.
In December 2018, he joined the board of directors of Ethiopian Airlines Group with Chief Executive Officer Tewolde GebreMariam leading the Airline.
The Board, in its ordinary meeting held on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, accepted Mr. Tewolde’s request for early retirement due to health reasons. Tewolde led the Airline for over a decade with remarkable success reflected in its exceptional performance in all parameters including but not limited to exponential growth from one Billion USD annual turn-over to 4.5 Billion, from 33 airplanes to 130 airplanes and from 3 million passengers to 12 million passengers (pre-COVID).
Under his leadership, the airline group has grown by four fold in all measurements building more than USD 700 million worth of vital infrastructure like Africa’s biggest hotel, Cargo terminal, MRO hangars and shops, Aviation Academy and Full Flight Simulators. The Board, the Senior Management, employees and the whole Ethiopian Airlines family express their gratefulness for his contribution and wish him full recovery soon.
The Board would announce the new Group CEO and successor to Tewolde as Mesfin Tasew Bekele.
With 50-year career in African aviation, the mantras of former Ethiopian CEO Girma Wake have not changed one iota.
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.
He was destined for the army and says he arrived at Ethiopian Airlines “by chance”, to follow comrades who were taking aptitude tests.
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.
A charismatic leader
“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.
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 patroned 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, and as of 2022 it has been awarded to Mr. Sanjeev Gadhia CEO Astral Aviation for his tremendous contribution to the African Aviation Jungle.
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.
“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.
By Ronnie Afema