By Mark Pilling
In an exclusive interview with Airline Business, Neil Burrows, the newly appointed head of SN Brussels and Virgin Express, talks about the challenge of merging these two Belgian carriers
There is nothing that stirs a nation’s public and its press corps as much as trials and tribulations at the country’s flagship carrier. With five years at the helm of Belgian low-cost carrier Virgin Express, Neil Burrows knows this only too well. And now his elevation to the leadership of the merged Virgin Express and SN Brussels Airlines means he is in the firing line more than ever.
“It is a very sensitive time,” he says. “Putting two rival airlines together means the press is extremely interested in what the hell is happening.” The fact that one of the airlines – SN Brussels – is the son of Belgium’s flag carrier Sabena makes the story all the more spicy. “There are all sorts of rumours in the papers on what might or might not happen,” he says.
However, until Burrows has put together a new business plan for the merged entities he will not say too much. It would be wrong to prejudge what options the evaluation teams from both airlines and external consultants come up with for the way forward, he explains. “We have got to take the staff through a very difficult process, there is change at the top, the merger of two carriers and a strategic review of the way we conduct our business.”
Burrows has been appointed, with an initial term of a year, after a period that has seen much wrangling and political intrigue about the make-up of the leadership team that will oversee the merger of these former intense rivals. They came under a combined holding company, SN Airholding, in June 2005, after SN Brussels provisionally agreed in October 2004 to combine operations with Virgin Express.
The upheaval came at the end of September when SN Brussels executive chairman Rob Kuijpers resigned suddenly, followed shortly afterwards by the departure of its chief executive Peter Davies. Considering that these moves only occurred in September, Burrows believes it has not taken too long for the board to evaluate external and internal candidates before announcing his appointment. The 61-year-old Englishman was already on the management board of both companies. He doesn’t believe the leadership hiatus will have stalled the merger process, but is keen to put his foot on the gas now.
“In terms of broad timescales I hope to be able to deliver to our board a proposal for the way forward by the end of February. A few weeks later we will have completed the business and implementation plan. This is quite an ambitious timescale.”
There has already been a substantial amount done already in reviewing how the carriers might work together and several concrete initiatives. These include network changes to avoid route duplication and there is flexibility of interchanging aircraft. “We are also now selling on each other’s metal,” he says, referring to both carriers selling tickets on the other’s flights on certain routes.
The slightly odd thing about the appointment of Burrows is the fact that he is only contracted for 12 months. This is an arrangement both he and the board wanted and are happy with, explains Burrows. “I am in Alex Ferguson mode – take it a year at a time,” he says, comparing his annual review with a similar working practice that the famous manager of UK premier league soccer team Manchester United adopts. “It’s a year and then we’ll see how the management team works and how I feel about it. How successfully we improve the way our two companies do business is all the board and I care about.”
He knows he has a big job. “Running an airline is a tough job. Running an airline that contains the remnants of the national airline is a tough job. Putting two airlines together is tough, as is developing a new strategic plan. We are doing all of them at one time – this is a huge ask for anyone.”In Belgium’s small and crowded market both carriers have struggled to make money. Both operate from Zaventum Airport, just outside capital Brussels. SN Brussels and Virgin Express toughed to out there and with Ryanair’s fast-expanding hub at Brussels South Charleroi Airport, which is located about 50km south of the capital. “It’s fair to say we are reasonably satisfied with what’s gone on in 2005,” says Burrows. “It’s very tough but a lot of people have suffered more than we have, and we will be even more competitive in 2006.”
Burrows is constantly asked if this will be his last job in aviation before he retires. “I don’t know,” he says simply. “It is my fifth of sixth job since I was 50.” He joined Virgin Express as director of flight operations from Dutch carrier Martinair and has held similar positions at several European airlines. He was also a co-founder of UK leisure carrier Air 2000.
He may only have a guaranteed job for a year, but “given the nature of this business does anyone know how long any chief executive will be in post?” he asks. The only guarantee appears to be that Burrows is up for the task. “I’m fit and I enjoy it,” he says of this business. “Aviation is a bit of a drug.”
So on the retirement question he concludes the interview with a cliché that could roll off the tongue of any soccer manager: “I wouldn’t rule anything in and I wouldn’t rule anything out.”