Mark Steele, Director Corporate Planning at IATA (International Air Transport Association)

What was it that tempted you to work and live in Switzerland?

The decision was career driven, as have been all of my moves.  Nissan had just moved its’ European Headquarters from Paris to just outside Geneva in Rolle. At the time I was the CFO for the Nordic Regional Hub based in Helsinki and had been there for 3 years. I had achieved what I wanted to, everything was running smoothly and I felt that career-wise I needed to get back into headquarters, where the career opportunities were. I was offered a role that was attractive and so took it……also Geneva is a very nice place to live and bring up a family. We had enjoyed the outdoor lifestyle living in Helsinki and so moved to a similar lifestyle in Geneva, but with better weather!

What similarities & differences have you seen between living in Netherlands & Switzerland? And in working?

In the Netherlands I lived in Amsterdam, so it was very much a city lifestyle. In Geneva, you travel not too far out of the centre and you are in the countryside, with mountains, woods and the lake close by. Netherlands is densely populated and Switzerland less so; you can really feel a difference there, it’s just not as crowded. In Amsterdam, you have everything on your doorstep, the city is open 24 hours a day, full of energy, vibrancy and an easygoing spirt. In Geneva the pace of the city is much slower and much more conservative. The Swiss have lots of rules about everything from washing your car on a Sunday, how high your hedge has to be (minimum and maximum height!) and what time in the evening you are allowed to flush a toilet! In Amsterdam people are very open and they don’t like rules and regulations; try and tell a Dutch person when they can flush their toilet at night…….it just wouldn’t work.

Workwise the countries have a lot of similarities – both with very outward looking and international environments, a mix of nationalities in the cities, large organisations headquartered there and a large expat community in both. Also, both the Netherlands and Switzerland appreciate a healthy work / life balance. Thus workwise I would say they are very similar.

After a strong performance in 2017, we notice that IATA have forecast 4.5% FTK (a measure of worldwide aviation freight business) growth in 2018 – what do you think are the contributory factors to this growth?

2017 saw growth of 9% in demand (which was exceptional in the industry) and only 3% in capacity – so demand growth was outstripping capacity growth. The outlook for air freight in 2018 is optimistic, but cautious. The two main positive drivers are the strength in international e-commerce, with companies such as Amazon, eBay and Alibaba continuing to go from strength to strength, and the increase in transport of time-and-temperature-sensitive goods (e.g. flowers and pharmaceuticals). 

However, overall the pace of growth is expected to slow, from the exceptional 9.0% of 2017, due to tariff introductions and uncertainty in the geopolitical and global economic environment. Despite this, we still expect a very healthy 4.5% expansion of demand in 2018.

What is the culture of the business?

That’s a good question, which is quite difficult to answer. There is not one overruling culture in IATA, so I would say it’s mixed. Coming from automotive industry, which is very commercial with lots of competition and rooted in a strong engineering and production capability; it was all about delivering, delivering to budget, delivering a new product, delivering a new marketing plan - very much action-orientated with clear targets so consequently they attracted employees who could thrive in that environment. Consequently, the culture was driven by action and meeting targets.

IATA, on the other-hand, is a non-profit organisation which has three distinct activities. The first is advocacy; negotiating with governments, legislators and the United Nations. Ensuring they see the positive sides of aviation that they should be encouraging and trying to prevent them seeing the aviation industry as a cash cow which can be taxed heavily. The second is the commercial team, who sell products and services e.g. the system the airlines use when checking you in to verify that you have the correct visas etc. for your destination (which is an IATA product).

The final one is Remittance and Settlement. - the collection of funds from airline ticket sales made by travel agents all over the world, which are then settled back to the relevant airline. This is a massive activity for us and we see approximately $400 billion annually being processed through our systems. That is the size of the GDP of Switzerland being collected and passed back to the airlines!

As a result of these diverse activities, each area of the business has its own culture, because the people in there are quite different and have different objectives. What I can say is that IATA is filled with experts on a wide range of topics all serving the aviation industry in different ways. It’s really quite unique globally; there’s no-one else doing what we do at this level.

What do you like about working for IATA?

When I started to find out about IATA, I realized that they’re extremely well respected in the industry. The rules and regulations we put in place really do impact the industry directly. I enjoy working for an organization that can make real, impactful changes globally and industry wide.

For example, one of the projects we are currently looking into is to do with Meteorological Data – collecting data from aircraft and relaying it back to a central hub, so that if they experience turbulence, for example, aircraft following them can be re-routed to avoid it. We are in a unique position to do this and thus increase the safety of aviation.

In addition, the organisation is very international and the business and the industry are constantly evolving, which I like a lot.

After having worked in the automotive industry for 22 years, what differences have you noticed in dealing with the finances of an Airline/Aviation company? Have there been any learning curves?

Fundamentally, they’re not so different. In both we look to maximize revenue, control costs and make wise investments with cash – so no difference there. Also, there is a cyclical nature to automotive and aviation; when economies are good people buy cars and go on holidays, when times are bad they stop doing that. The learning curve has really been about the technical aspects of the industry; how a ticket purchase works, how an airport functions, the safety and security aspects for aircraft on and off the ground…….IATA touches all of these and lots more. I’ve been here for 3 years and I’m still learning.

If you could go back and give your younger (graduate) self some career advice, what would it be?

Know what you want! Take time to think about that so that when you are in a meeting, a negotiation or having to make a decision about career options, you know what your preferred outcome is…then work towards that. I was given that advice a long time ago, it’s stood me in good stead.

I was fortunate in that I worked for a large multinational with a graduate program and fast track career opportunities. I took every opportunity that was put in front of me, because I’d said to myself early on that I wanted an international career…and it worked out well. Nowadays these programs are few and far between, thus you need to know what you want, be bold and go out and get it!

What is the best and worst experience of interviewing you have had?

I was in Helsinki setting up the Nordic hub from scratch, looking for a Purchasing Manager. I interviewed a guy who was too interested in telling me who he went to University with and who his golf club friends were, trying to impress me with politicians and lawmakers in Helsinki that I’d never heard of. He would have lasted two minutes in Nissan and the interview didn’t last much longer…..

A better experience was when I was in the UK looking to hire a Controlling Manager and received the CV of an Engineer who had become an Accountant. His CV was perfect and I hoped that he would be as good in interview. I asked him to name some Nissan products. Most people can name 3 or 4……this guy named about 20! Old ones, new ones…. he was a car enthusiast, with excellent product knowledge. The interview had started well and continued the same way. Needless to say, he got the job!

What have you found to be the biggest challenges in recruiting?

Finding good caliber candidates is not a problem – working for big, international organisations attracts good people. The trick is sifting through the huge number of applications you get (especially nowadays with LinkedIn), and picking the best of the bunch based on the CV. You hope that you’ve made a good match between their expertise with the job requirements. Finally, the key for me is the interview. Making a check on their experience and, more importantly, whether their personality will fit into the team and organisation, as well as whether they have potential to flourish.

What advice would you give to a young finance professional approaching the job market in Geneva?

There are lots of good young professionals out there with similar educations and similar experience. So, you need to differentiate yourself either professionally or privately (on your CV or in your interview). A good example is a French candidate I interviewed who had previously wanted to work in India, as he wanted to experience a completely different culture. He achieved this on his own, by getting on a plane and going to India, knocking on doors. Consequently, he found a job when he got there. This showed real strength of character, determination, drive and goal orientation. I’m not suggesting to go to India, but to do or explain something you have done that is out of the ordinary that also demonstrates something about your character.

Describe yourself in 3 words

Honest, Open and Determined.

If you could choose to have the career of a famous Artistic/Musical/Sporting celebrity, whose would it be and why?

Without a doubt, Will Carling, who captained the England rugby team in the nineties. I was still playing rugby then and he did a fantastic job with the team at that time - 3 Grand Slams, a World Cup final and wins against all major Rugby Nations. He was a good captain and deserved all the success he got through hard work and preparation. He was also very charismatic off the pitch.

 

 
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