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Wed 1 May 2019 09:13 AM

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'I would do nothing different': Former Etihad CEO James Hogan says he has 'moved on'

Exclusive: Former Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan said he 'had a wonderful experience but then you move on'

'I would do nothing different': Former Etihad CEO James Hogan says he has 'moved on'
Former Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan.

Former Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan said he has "moved on" from his 11-year career at the Abu Dhabi-owned airline.

“Quite frankly, it was a unique opportunity to build a business but since then I have moved on. I have my own business now,” Hogan said.

Speaking at the Skift Forum Europe in London, Hogan made no mention of the Gulf carrier’s balance sheet falling into the red, which was largely set into motion by his own strategy of purchasing equity investments in struggling airlines, such as Air Berlin and Alitalia.

In March, Etihad Airways announced an annual loss of $1.28 billion. In the last three years, Etihad has lost $4.8 billion.

But Hogan, who ran Etihad Airways from 2006 to mid-2017 and oversaw its growth from 12 to 123 planes, dismissed questions about the impact of building a global network of airline equity partnerships.

“It’s not appropriate to [look back]. I was at Etihad 11 years and I had a wonderful experience but then you move on… you move forward,” he told Arabian Business on the sidelines of the Skift Forum Europe on Tuesday.

Started from scratch

Today Hogan is more focused on his Switzerland-based investment advisory company, Knighthood Capital, which he runs along with former Etihad CFO James Rigney.

The former Etihad boss said during his speech: “I started my own business two years ago. I was at an analyst lunch yesterday and they asked me, ‘What would I do that was different’? I said ‘nothing’.

“I created a brand from scratch. I created a proposition and I created a global look and feel and I managed it within constraints.

“[Working for Etihad] was a unique opportunity to build a $300 million group into a $20 billion group over the years.

“Fundamental to that was my understanding of the constraints and understanding the rules of business in the Middle East, India, Europe and the US and being able to navigate accordingly.”

Etihad strategy

Speaking in a session on ‘building on global brands’, Hogan told the audience: “I had a huge market. I had all the Gulf within three hours flying time, I had the Middle East, and I had the Indian subcontinent… We had to fill the aircraft every day and that was a challenge for the CEOs and their teams in the aviation business.”

Hogan said that his strategy was focused around the utilisation of the assets and building "fundamental partnerships".

During his tenure in Abu Dhabi, Hogan oversaw Etihad's acquisitions of minority stakes in Air Berlin, Air Seychelles, Aer Lingus, Virgin Australia, Air Serbia, Darwin Airline, Jet Airways and Aitalia.

The Abu Dhabi airline has since abandoned its attempt to build a global network of airline investments after a string of failures and cancelled a further nine unprofitable routes last year.

Etihad’s discontinued routes included Tehran, Dallas/Fort Worth and Ho Chi Minh City.

Passenger numbers fell to 17.8 million passengers, from 18.6 million in 2018, while revenue was flat at $5 billion.

Cost-cutting plan

The Gulf carrier is currently pushing ahead with a cost-cutting plan to stabilise its balance sheet. New chief executive Tony Douglas is now two years into a five-year turnaround plan.

Progress is being made in “streamlining our cost base, improving our cash-flow and strengthening our balance sheet”, Douglas told Bloomberg.

When asked by Arabian Business if he plans to continue the strategy put in place by Hogan, Douglas said in March: “I think what we have made quite clear is that we are not going to repeat the previous strategy.”

“It’s a shame that Mr Hogan didn’t admit that the piecemeal stake buys were, in hindsight, a collection of bad moves that have now left Etihad reeling with debt and the new CEO has had to change strategic focus to rejuvenate the carrier,” Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, told Arabian Business.

“One must question then, whether enough due diligence was done when looking at these airlines – particular those that have failed. Equally, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to look forward and not back – because someone now is having to deal with the fallout of the actions that happens under Mr Hogan’s tenure.”

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