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Challenging common business practices – in search of a ‘landing place’

Mpumi Mpofu, Chief Executive Officer of Airports Company South Africa, tells International Airport Review about the new approach they are taking to their recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic, severely battered our aviation industry over the past two years, bringing the global economy to its knees. Closer to home, the Airport Company South Africa’s (ACSA) financial and operational decline forced the organisation to seriously think about its road to recovery. Under my leadership, we took to the skies to script an ambitious corporate turnaround strategy, called the Recover and Sustain Strategy. A fundamental outcome to this strategy was recovery, and a very unconventional approach was taken i.e., placing people first and that ACSA would not be able to achieve a sustainable turnaround without taking the entire aviation ecosystem into account.

The Recover and Sustain Strategy is underpinned by the three pillars to run airports, develop airports and grow our footprint. To sustain our recovery and grow our footprint, we developed a growth strategy which included the global, aerotropolis, non-aeronautical revenue generation, commercial, cargo, passenger mobilisation, ground handling, jet fuel strategic initiatives all aimed at growing our business and footprint in the post-COVID-19 period.

Through it all, ACSA, has emerged as a resilient company and key lessons learnt during this period are:

  • Sustainability of gains and growth are key for recovery
  • Our work relies on working with and through strategic partners
  • Pandemics are here to stay, and we will need to co-exist and build resilience
  • Workplace transformation, diversity, inclusion and change management underpins recovery.

A holistic or 360-degree view was a necessary trajectory for recovery and sustainability.
It is on the back of these lessons that the identification of key partners and stakeholders that make up the aviation ecosystem and value chain was central to crafting our ACSA growth strategy which is a blueprint for the Recover and Sustain Strategy. Without them, the plan would have no basis.
We asked ourselves what role we could play to ensure diversity, inclusion and equity in our ecosystem – given the need to optimise our workforce in view of the digital revolution upon us and simultaneously undertaking a mass scale right sizing project to reduce operational spend. Barriers that inhibit progress needed to be broken down, to develop a truly inclusive workplace for all our employees and matching employee strengths and career expectations to those of our industry became critical.

One key lever that we identified in this regard was the commercialisation of our Aviation Training Academy. Through collaboration and co-operation with partners and stakeholders, we focused on building aviation-related curriculum. This is to develop the necessary technical capacity required by the sector, not only in ACSA, but in the African region as a whole.

Business acumen

Of importance is the need to build the business acumen required to drive our recovery of the ecosystem by harnessing new ideas, perspectives, and innovation. This is premised on the realisation that what ACSA used to do before (business as usual) would not be sufficient to recover and build a sustainable sector in what has now become the “new normal” (or a future-focused business). It is therefore pivotal that disruptive thinking around the economics of aviation must be embraced, against the backdrop of strengthening the ecosystem.

As an organisation, the internal review of our Governance Framework and Operating Model has been significant, as we responded to the financial impact of COVID-19 through cost containment measures, ACSA lost some key competencies. The antithesis to this ‘great exit’, in some fitting manner, afforded ACSA with an opportunity to optimise its workforce and rebuild the skills set and capability models required for an aviation business to operate in this highly digitised and digitalised environment.
This has enabled ACSA to navigate through one of the most difficult periods and emerge with a lean and agile structure. This agility has underpinned the company’s new ways of working, because without this cultural shift, achieving the dynamism required in these unprecedented times would not be possible. And while agility and resilience has been important to date, it will be critical going forward.

Enhancing capabilities

A tremendous victory for ACSA has been that this approach has not only fostered diversity in our make-up, but also greatly enhanced the capabilities that we possess. Our employees have demonstrated admirable resilience and tapped into skill sets way beyond what was previously required and expected of them.

At the same time, these challenging times and the hybrid ways of work have also enabled the fostering of an inclusive culture within our organisation. While collaboration was initially difficult, through a process of adaptation, we are now leveraging technology which has become key in driving collaboration and inclusivity, despite geographical or spatial distance.

Fast-tracked digital transformation, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, has led ACSA to introspect and be more intentional about creating a humane working environment to assist it in traversing these uncertain times.

ACSA’s leadership had to set the tone for the organisation to become more humane, inclusive, empathetic and one that fosters a sense of community, with the recognition that people are human beings before they are employees.

Reimagining the employee value proposition

More than ever, affording care to its employees through its employee wellness programme has helped ACSA to humanise its work environment. The “new normal” has challenged the organisation to reimagine its employee value proposition in order to attract and retain talent that will ultimately help the business to not only recover, but to thrive beyond possibility.

How digitising processes reap success

Another consequence of COVID-19 was the huge demand it placed on companies to digitise processes and systems for their employees. ACSA was not immune to this, and the company in April 2020 had to immediately migrate from being an office-bound organisation to one that deployed a hybrid working model for employees.

To ensure a seamless and stable business operational environment, remote working, and post-COVID working environment, ACSA’s information technology and human resources departments collaborated to scale up on its data science and data analytics skills-set. As part of the process of bringing in new technologies and digitising processes we have been upskilling our employees to enable them to grow with the organisation and prepare them for the post-COVID economy. We have started rolling out data science skills around artificial intelligence, increased cybersecurity training and systems to ensure the automation of day-to-day routine processes. This has freed up employees (and improved efficiencies), to produce work that delivers real value to the business. This is all part of a concerted effort to create more value and to create a sustainable aviation ecosystem for all, including our employees.

In conclusion, we are pleased to say that the key lessons we have learnt on our journey in navigating the perils of COVID-19 have become the very strategic inflection points to building a sustainable aviation industry. Building the ACSA culture as part of this new normal has entail reviewing our set of values as a next step to bed down the lived reality and massive change experienced over the last two years, move the business to environment, social and governance reporting framework and compliance for a sustainable future.

The future is bright… We look forward to contributing to areas that will make our sector more inclusive, diverse and equitable, with a particular focus on achieving economic justice and equal participation for all.

Biography

Nompumelelo (Mpumi) Z. Mpofu is the Chief Executive Officer, Executive Director and member of the Social and Ethics Committee, and the Board Investment Committee at Airports Company South Africa (ACSA).

Mpofu joined ACSA from the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency where she was Director-General.

Mpofu holds a Bachelor’s Honours Degree in Urban and Regional Planning and postgraduate degree in Town Planning from Coventry University in the United Kingdom, as well as a Certificate in Local Government Management from the Local Government Management Board (LGMB) in the UK and was a fellow at the South African Advanced Education Programme (SAAEP) at Oxford University.

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