Ground Handling

Raising the bar in aviation ground support services


The Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc (NAHCO Aviance) is inching closer to achieving its five-year transformation agenda (2019-2023) aimed at growing the company and delivering operational efficiency. It has ramped up operations of all its subsidiaries, even as its Group Managing Director, Mrs. Olatokunbo Fagbemi, has put in place innovative strategies to weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic. CHIKODI OKEREOCHA and KELVIN OSA-OKUNBOR report.

THE Group Managing Director (GMD) of Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc (NAHCO Aviance), Mrs. Olatokunbo Fagbemi, comes across as a calm, unassuming aviation management professional. But, behind the veneer of her cool mien is a fighter, literarily; a firm and audacious business manager and woman leader determined to hold her own in a largely male-dominated air transport industry.

Tough and blunt, Mrs. Fagbemi does not call a spade by any other name. “I say things the way they are, because I cannot change; I can be very blunt. I remember when I assumed duties in NAHCO as GMD, I was very tough, she said, adding: “I grew up among boys; I had to fight my way. I am very firm.” Besides, “My background did not set the criteria for good performance or competence on the basis of gender.”

Mrs. Fagbemi’s attributes have continued to signpost her stewardship at the foremost ground handling company since December 20, 2018 when she took charge as GMD. For instance, she once demonstrated her toughness and fighting spirit when, sometime ago, about 600 cargo agents moved to take over NAHCO’s warehouse. She kicked her heels in, insisting it wasn’t going to happen, despite the cargo agents’ growing agitation.

Recalling the incident, Mrs. Fagbemi said: “There was a day I had to address a crowd of over 600 cargo agents. My team warned me that I cannot do it because they (the agents) appeared unruly and could hurt me. But that conversation with the cargo agents was very important for me and for the industry, because a lot of things depended on it.

“The cargo agents wanted to take over our warehouse, and I was not going to allow that. The agents were getting agitated, but I insisted that issues of safety and security were too critical not to be discussed. But, today, we understand ourselves better.”

While some men in similar crisis situation would have probably chickened out, Mrs. Fagbemi stood her ground, encouraged by her strong belief that improved customer experience and stakeholder engagement, including building a robust relationship with cargo agents, are key to maintaining industrial harmony and ultimately, achieving NAHCO’s five-year transformation agenda.

The Board and Management of NAHCO, after the completion of a management retreat for executive and non-executive directors, came up with a five-year transformation agenda, which was facilitated by auditing firm KPMG. It was anchored on five pillars, including people, digital transformation, operational excellence, organic and inorganic growth and diversification.

The whole idea of the transformation agenda, according to Mrs. Fagbemi, who, at the time of the retreat, was an executive director, was to grow the company and its operations. Her eventual appointment as GMD meant that the task of implementing the transformation agenda fell on Fagbemi’s lap.

Fagbemi, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmacy from the University of Ibadan and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from IESE (“Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa”) University of Nevara, Spain, put the right foot forward by investing massively in NAHCO’s personnel via staff training and in equipment and facilities.

“The pillar or bedrock of this organisation and any organisation is the people. So, we are investing in our people to ensure that operational excellence is achieved and the digital transformation we need to move our company forward is pursed and achieved.

“We need to have a digital culture for our people to drive the organic and inorganic growth the company has set as an objective,” she told The Nation in an interview in her office.

For instance, under her purposeful and result-driven leadership, NAHCO has since last year put in significant resources in the training of its workers in ground support equipment, even as it plans to invest over N3 billion in operational equipment.

The company has just completed the refurbishing of its cargo complex. It also took delivery of some fork lifts last month, even as it has put in place a robust maintenance plan for its equipment. “We have engaged some of our Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to train our staff on specific equipment to have better understanding of the equipment.

“We have relationship with such OEMs to train our workers, in addition to using technology online to train our workers, and this has helped us,” Fagbemi said, adding that the company has also organised several COVID -19 safety awareness training for all staff across all stations.

However, the prioritization of staff training and aggressive investment in ground handling equipment are not Fagbemi’s only winning strategies. The Pharmacist-turned aviation management professional has also managed to find a way to bond better with NAHCO’s numerous clients.

“We have established a relationship with our clients, who have demonstrated sufficient understanding with our company as we render them services. We reach to these clients, including airlines and cargo agents, not just as customers, but as partners as we serve them,” she said.

According to her, the whole essence was to understand clients’ plans and programmes so that the company could on its own put programmes and structures that fits into what they require. “We have clients, who, sometimes, have challenges. We reach out to them to find out what the specific challenges are,” Fagbemi pointed out.

She said as agents to airlines, NAHCO ensures airlines’ passengers enjoy seamless services at the point of disembarkation and embarkation into the aircraft. This, according to her, was to ensure their check-in experience, baggage into the aircraft is properly handled in the air and on the ground when they land to ensure they have a smooth experience.

In the area of cargo, Fagbemi said NAHCO, as part of efforts to ensure that airlines and passenger experience is good enough to engender a repeat service, has been doing its best to ensure that the relationship between players in that ecosystem is good enough.

“It is good as a company to understand client relationship and ensure all interest in such value chain is best served,” she emphasized, adding that in line with this approach, NAHCO ensures that safety and security regulations are adhered to for proper facilitation of goods processed through its warehouse.

And the extent has gone in executing the task will “We need to understand the needs of everyone with a team of intelligent people in NAHCO to drive our processes through despite the challenges of COVID – 19 pandemic.

“We ensure all our processes are in line with regulatory requirements and other standards. We have to keep changing our standard operating procedures to ensure the dynamics of the business are complied with,” the aviation management expert stated.

Expectedly, her innovative approach to running the affairs of NAHCO has paid off. In a remarkably short time, she has been able to put NAHCO on a sustainable growth trajectory, despite the dislocations foisted on almost every aspect of its business and operations by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.For instance, under her charge, the company, last year, achieved about 30 per cent growth, compared to the previous year. Also, at the beginning of this year, January 2020, pre – COVID- 19, NAHCO recorded over 20 per cent growth, compared to the previous year.

The global aviation industry, particularly Nigeria’s, was badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Various operators and stakeholders in the Nigerian air transport business are still counting their losses from the devastating impact of the deadly virus, with NAHCO’s operations affected by a margin of 30 per cent, for instance.

But despite the challenges brought about by COVID -19, including a dip in revenue, NAHCO is gradually bouncing back. “We are gradually coming out of that dip. As we pull out of the dip and embrace rebound, next year we could consolidate on the expected rebound to keep the business running,” Mrs. Fagbemi said.

Her optimism of a rebound next year is not without justification. Already, operations of all NAHCO’s subsidiaries, including NAHCO Free Zone (NFZ), NAHCO Energy and Power (EPI) and Mainland Cargo Options Limited (MCO) have been ramped up. And how she managed to achieve the feat is no doubt, a study in strategic thinking and business management.

For instance, Mainland Cargo’s operations were scaled up to support NAHCO during the pandemic. In fact, the company, according to Fagbemi, recorded 100 per cent growth during the pandemic. NAHCO, she said, also extended relationship in the logistics value chain including the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) to grow consistency in that line of business.

“Our backbone has been mainly cargo operations. Though people are traveling less, they have been shipping more. During the pandemic, we opened discussions with our clients, the airlines, which have brought opportunities for some haulage and logistic business,” she told The Nation, adding that the company also stepped up standards in air shipping to attract more patronage.

She, however, said despite the havoc caused by the pandemic, the lessons learnt are too good to be ignored. One of the lessons, according to her, is the need to adapt to new ways of doing things.

“It (COVID-19) has changed the way we do business, by ensuring there is delivery of target by working from home and helping companies to realize that there is a pool of people with ideas to achieve innovations. It has helped us scale up our internal resources to drive operational excellence using technology and achieving much more with technology.

“It also brought about dynamism to meet the challenges we met and it helped us to think ahead in our standard operating procedures to achieve better results. By and large, COVID – 19 brought challenges; things were hard, but it helped us as a company to forge ahead,” Fagbemi said.

In stamping her feet as woman leader and business manager, Mrs. Fagbemi is determined to empower other aspiring women entrepreneurs through training and mentorship. She has been reaching out to younger women to encourage them to pick up careers in the aviation sector.

Already, plans are underway to pick up a date next year to organise a carrier talk to get younger women start early to pick up careers in the aviation sector. “We need to catch the young girls early to mentor them into business.

“We intend to latch on women in the aviation sector to mentor the younger generation into professions like piloting, accounting, engineering and other areas to build their capacity. We intend to have a coaching clinic to teach younger women the way to be professional and competent in their craft,” she said.

A strong believer in competence rather than gender as key factor in determining who occupies leadership position, Mrs. Fagbemi said nobody should be given any position on the basis of gender, but because he or she has what it takes to do the job. “If you are competent, you should be given the opportunity, whether you are a man or woman,” she emphasized.

Beyond competence that has largely propelled her sterling performance, Mrs. Fagbemi said the tremendous support and encouragement she gets from her husband, children and in-laws also contribute to her remarkable successes. “Everything starts from the home. It is from home you can do well as a woman in business like me if you have a very supportive husband and family members,” she said.

Such support, according to her, is also the reason she has been able to joggle her very tight work schedule with family. “As a professional woman, you have to balance work and family. You must put everything in place to make your home work. You must plan for your family,” the proud mother of three, counseled.