You could easily mistake Fathi Hilal Buhazza for a philanthropist if you didn't know he's the president and CEO of Maximus Air, the UAE's largest air cargo transport company. When we meet him for the interview at his office in Abu Dhabi, he's more interested in discussing the lack of leadership training for children in schools. "Just think, if we can tap into that huge databank of young minds, and give them the confidence to reach for their passion, what a great leap forward for the country!" he enthuses. It's obvious that his passion for aviation is equalled only by his commitment to helping others.
Fathi, 48, an Emirati, has developed Maximus Air into a highly successful and profitable operation that is the region's leading all-cargo airline. He has over 30 years of experience in the aviation industry, including senior level positions encompassing both civil and military sectors.
Earlier, as Director of Operations at the Presidential Flight (Amiri Flight) - which conducts VIP passenger and cargo flights for the government - he was involved in setting strategic plans to meet the current and future operational needs, as well as in ensuring safety, budget control and operational excellence in the day-to-day running of the elite airline.
"After 14 years there, I was given the opportunity to head Maximus Air which I accepted immediately,'' he says.
Fathi's reign at the helm of Maximus has overseen a growth in business from $12m to more than $110m turnover, and the flying hours have increased fivefold thanks to shrewd marketing and excellent business moves.
Along the way, Fathi realised a lot of good can be done as a part of his job. So he formulated and initiated a simple yet highly effective strategy of providing the much-needed cargo transporting capability to support global relief efforts. In 2009, he began the Care by Air initiative which, together with the UAE Red Crescent, Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Airports Company, delivers humanitarian relief by providing the use of logistical resources and delivering supplies ‘at cost'.
Under this initiative, airport, cargo companies and fuel suppliers are able to help improve the lives of millions by donating empty space on flights at cost, waiving handling, landing or parking fees or discounting fuel prices. Already, it has made a huge difference to the work of relief organisations, as they can now rely on private business partnerships to help them deliver aid where it is needed in the world.
At the moment Care By Air is his passion. "Do you know around 30 per cent of cargo capacity in most airlines goes empty?" he says. "If we fill up .0003 per cent of their 30 per cent we will be able to provide a meal for 5,000 needy people every day. That way we can reduce hunger in this world!"
Here, Fathi talks to Friday about the incidents that shaped his life and his dreams:
I started my career with the UAE Air Force in 1982. I was fortunate because when you become an air force officer it endows you with a lot of values such as discipline, compassion and love for fellow beings… I learnt a lot during my time with the forces.
In 1991, I was selected to head the Amiri Flights as Director of Operations. I was with them until I was given the opportunity to head Maximus Air when it was set up in 2005, which for me was a huge leap, from a non-profit organisation like the Amiri Flights to a business. I took it on as a challenge and so far Maximus Air has been a success story. Turnover has continually increased since the outset of operations from $12 million in 2005 to $110 million in 2011. The number of hours flown has also increased substantially from 540 flight hours in 2005 to close to 11,000 now.
Part of Abu Dhabi Group, it is the largest all-cargo airline in the UAE and among the biggest operating in the Middle East.
Maximus Air specialises in moving outsized air cargo. Other segments include the transportation of live animals, VIP, rapid response and humanitarian aid.
My principles at work are very simple. I believe every human has a lot of good in him/her. The reason a person signs up to work is because he or she wants to work. They're not here to waste time. But they may have limitations such as lack of motivation or they may require training in certain areas, which you as a manager need to address. You have to encourage them and find out what their forte is, what they do best. When you try people in different positions, you will see how they are an ace in some positions and duds in others. It's the manager's job to find out where a person fits correctly.
I like to be transparent. What you see is what you get. Politics is something I detest. It can sometimes be a liability for a leader. I like win-win situations and don't like to hog all the advantages leaving others with nothing. Both the buyer and the seller have to benefit. Business has to be fair.
That leads to my next rule: no greed. Greed is not good for any business. People who do good business and turn greedy will fail one day as it is not sustainable. In fact, anything that's based on wrong will end up failing.
I have several very harsh, very clear guidelines when it comes to the safety of operations. I got that while working with the Royal Flights. When there is doubt, there is no doubt - I'd rather ground an aircraft than take a risk and put people's lives in danger or invite a disaster. I work with safety principles as my guidelines at Maximus Air. It is International Standard for Organisation (ISO) approved. We go for all these expensive procedures because I want to be able to look at people in the eye and say I did my best.
I like helping people. If a staff member comes to me during a personal crisis - for instance, if his mother is unwell and he needs money for her treatment - and I help him, then he will become a loyal employee. He will no longer work for Maximus Air but for me. When he does his work he'll make sure he won't disappoint me - and that works well for me and for the company.
Sometimes people I repose trust in do disappoint me, but I think they are the odd ones out, not the rule. It's my firm belief that the majority of the people mean well.
I like the idea of running a business because it helps run so many homes. This is something that empowers me, makes me want to give more - expand the company so more people will benefit. That's the thought that makes me work harder. I am a quick thinker and can think on my feet. That said, I don't attend to details; that's a weakness. But I believe it's good to know your weak points because half of solving a problem is acknowledging there is a problem.
I grew up in Sharjah and joined the UAE Air Force when I was 18. I had a fascination for the Armed forces and that was reason enough to join the Air Force.
Unfortunately I couldn't become a pilot as my vision was less than the prescribed limit. The alternative was to become a navigator. When I look back, I am glad it happened that way. That job influenced me a great deal. The navigator sits behind the pilot, and has a wider view of the action - it's his responsibility to navigate the craft. You develop a larger vision. So you get used to seeing the bigger picture. That became my style when I became a manager - to always keep the larger picture in view.
The Air Force sent me to the US in 1982 to study at the Mather Air Force Base, in Sacramento, California. I was the first person from the UAE to graduate in navigation from the college. We were about 24 students and I was the only non-American in the class. All the others were university graduates while I had only a high-school certificate. Also, my English was not that good. It was tough keeping up with them, but I didn't want to give up and return a failure. I wanted to prove that I could and I did. It was pure determination and hard work that helped me succeed.
I firmly believe that if you want to gift somebody maturity, let him fly - let him travel a great deal. The experience, the confidence you gain from travelling as opposed to staying at home, in your own country, is incredible. Meeting new people, experiencing new cultures and learning the art of communication and surmounting problems that arise when you are on your own can give you a lot of self-confidence and increase your zest for life.
I think the major contributor to my character was the time I spent with Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE and its first president. I was very fortunate to have travelled with him on the Royal Jet when he flew overseas. I saw how he enriched the world wherever he went. He built hospitals, schools, roads, mosques, manufacturing facilities, wherever was required. He didn't do it for posterity. One of his favourite sayings was ‘God gave us this wealth for us to share it with others.' I see the same spirit in his followers.
Being up close and seeing all this certainly changed me and shaped my personality and helped me come up with the idea of Care By Air, which Maximus Air launched in 2009, in partnership with Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi Airports Company and Aramex. Care by Air is a non-profit organisation delivering at-cost transportation and logistics to help balance the needs of humanitarian organisations in disaster zones, or where aid is required.
The ‘at cost' approach is a means of doing a good deed and good business simultaneously. By offering cargo space, fuel, warehousing, handling and haulage at cost to a humanitarian organisation, costs proportionally go down.
I enjoy working hard and also take time off to relax. One of the ways I relax is by swimming. I also like to take off on short trips on my own.
I think I've found the right to way to relax - it's called flotation therapy, not very common here but quite popular in Europe. I do it at home. You pour around 40kg of Epsom salts into a tub, which is filled with water that's about 60cm deep. This creates an environment similar to that of the Dead Sea, allowing you to float effortlessly and enjoy a feeling of weightlessness. This therapy is good for relieving stress.
My dreams are and have always been very simple. I don't wake up every day and check my bank statement. Money for me is a means, not the end. I'd like to make money to be able to help those in need. I like to have more so I can give more.
My dreams now are not for me, but for my five lovely children. I dream of a happy and healthy life for them. I also hope they will be able to pay back to this country that has given us all so much.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair was quoted as saying being a parent is more difficult than running a country. He may be right.
When you have a job or run a business, you get help from so many people. You may even be trained for the job. But being a parent you don't get any training! During my childhood it was our parents and extended families that brought up children. Now families don't bring children up, the media brings them up!
I find it very difficult to determine the shape of my children's personality. We can teach them the basics like our parents taught us, but that's about it. That's why I find parenting to be very challenging.