Kenya: Titus Naikuni, the lanky, towering chief executive officer of ‘The Pride of Africa’ as Kenya Airways (KQ) is fondly known, is often perceived as a proud man in his astute way of doing things. He recently revealed the secret behind his longevity and demonstrable success at KQ.
The chief executive chose the most unlikely venue — up in the skies, 28,000 feet above sea level in the belly of the ultramodern Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner to share his experiences at the airline, now ranked fifth in Africa. This was during one of its roundabout demonstration flights. He also opened a glimpse into a future he envisages for himself, when he finally quits the stage to, in his words, “create room for new blood” by November this year.
“I’ll have put in 11 years as Kenya Airways CEO in November. None of my predecessors has been at the helm longer. My trick? Ensuring that staff is well trained and enabled to deliver without strain.
“I have used people to put KQ where it is. I cannot do everything. No successful manager pulls off winning stunts working alone. We are today among the five top airlines on the African continent and the leader on the routes connecting African destinations, he said, adding, “We deserve credit for saving Africa the shame of approaching some of our capitals via Europe, as was once the case. We were the second after Ethiopian Airlines to bring the Dreamliner, touted as the world’s most efficient passenger aircraft to Africa. I am proud as I leave the scene to have played a central role in that feat.”
Naikuni describes the growth of KQ during his tenure as phenomenal — from about 20 aircraft when he took over, to 46 at present. Long range ones includes the seven B-777s and six B-767s. “We are well poised for the future with eight of the nine initially ordered Boeing 787-8s yet to arrive.
Five more are expected within the course of this year alone, with the rest to follow later. “It is no mean achievement in the turbulent aviation atmosphere that is Africa, given the fact that a Dreamliner costs anywhere between $150 million (Sh13 billion and $170 million (over Sh15 billion). This does it not surprise you that we have overtaken the once mighty South African Airways to this tape?” Naikuni poses mirthfully.
“Investment in crew has been given equal emphasis because success in any industry is keeled on its manpower. I took over when the airline had 150 pilots,” he observes. “Today the pilots are 500.99 per cent of them Kenyans. I hear some grumbles about foreign sourced pilots, but their numbers are insignificant. In any case, it is healthy for an international airline such as ours to showcase a few expatriates.”
Naikuni is optimistic of the future of Kenya in spite of “hiccups here and there. “Note that a successful airline like ours is a semblance is behind a successful nation and a successful city. Nairobi has a lot going for it in terms of its location and place in the regional an economic and financial hub. Our telecommunication competes with any in the world. I appreciate that security is ailing us a bit, but that is seasonal and everything is being done to address it. I am happy with developments at the airport where unit four is coming up pretty well and will soon place us with the leaders on the continent.
Naikuni observes that the Dreamliner that arrived in the country on April 5, 2014 will make its long haul debut in early June with scheduled flights on the Nairobi/Paris route currently served by B-777s.
“We look forward to opening the Shanghai and Beijing routes this year using Dreamliners. The Bangkok/Hong Kong route has also been identified for Dreamliner as well as a West African route,” he divulges, adding that flights for direct flights to Abuja, Nigeria have been finalised. Nothing, he says, is without challenges. Coming from Magadi Soda, a mining background that he served for 23 years, Naikuni says it was difficult at the beginning. “But patience stood me in good stead. I had to learn patiently even as I taught those under me,” he explains.
He sites the May 5, 2007 crash of KQ flight 507 into a swamp at Douala, Cameroon with 114 souls on board, all of whom perished as ‘most trying ‘ in an otherwise eventful career.
A mechanical engineer by training, Naikuni who will be 62 when he retires says he expects to continue being productive at his Nkoile rural home, off Namanga Road in Kajiado County, tending his livestock among other less hectic activities.
Naikuni, a technocrat who was part of President Moi’s “Dream Team” engaged by the government under a World Cup recommendation to help turn round the economy is an alumnus of Cardinal Otunga High School, Mosocho and the University of Nairobi.
A graduate of the prestigious Harvard Business School, he is the father of four adult children, three daughters and one son who, a trained airline pilot.