It is quite a tough job being the CFO of an African airline. The industry faces many challenges from inadequate infrastructure to inconsistent demand. Despite this, CFO of Kenya Airways Hellen Mathuka, loves her job.
It is quite a tough job being the CFO of an African airline. The industry faces many challenges including inadequate infrastructure, regulatory issues, safety concerns, high operating costs, competition, skilled workforce shortages and inconsistent demand. And this is before considering the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite facing one crisis after another, CFO of Kenya Airways (KQ) Hellen Mathuka, loves her job.
“I enjoy being challenged. Working for the airline with all the issues we face on a daily basis is what wakes me up in the morning. It is in my nature to indulge in problem solving and, in this industry, as soon as we have solved one problem another one is never too far away. We have been running on adrenaline for quite a while, I am quite used to it and wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
Hellen wakes up at five thirty a.m. every morning and takes an hour’s walk to get her mind set for the rest of the day. She finds that walking outdoors enables her to think clearly and often leaves her office for a stroll to ponder the next best move.
“I occasionally take long drives and I have a sister who is fourteen years my junior who often convinces me to go dancing with her on weekends,” she added.
Second time around
Among the issues the airline is currently facing are high fuel costs. Fuel comprises between 25 percent and 40 percent of costs which have risen sharply because of the war in Ukraine. This has been compounded with inflation globally and the devaluation of the Kenya Shilling against the US Dollar. The airline has foreign currency loans and as a result their financial statements reflect a significant amount of unrealised losses.
“These macro-economic challenges have arisen as we are recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. That was an even worse situation because we had to park the aircraft which is not a simple process because you need to ensure that the engines are covered properly, and that the aircraft is well maintained so that they are ready to fly once the skies re-open,” she said.
“So, maintenance costs were an ongoing expense in addition to the other fixed costs of loan repayments and salaries. We went on a cash preservation mission which included getting moratoriums from our lenders. Cash is king and our mindset was changed from looking at profitability to attending to any areas where we were burning cash,” she added confirming the words of Alan Miltz that revenue is vanity, profit is sanity and cash is king.
That said, revenue is still an important measure of performance and Kenya Airways group revenue is now equal to the figures reported in 2019 and recovery continues with capacity now up to 83 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Hellen is in her second stint at Kenya Airways having initially joined the national carrier in 2003 as an internal auditor. She spent six years in the department during which she learnt the ins and outs of the business. At the beginning of 2009, she joined East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL) as a manager in the group’s audit and risk function.
“Working for the brewery was quite different. They had a different focus, that of continuous innovation as opposed to airlines where we live and breathe safety and customer service. EABL is owned by Diageo, and it was the first time I was working for a multinational company that operated based on directives issued from outside the country,” she said.
After only six months, Hellen returned to Kenya Airways when they advertised for a head of internal audit position, and she was the successful candidate. Her plan was always to leave audit and go into operations and she got the opportunity to venture into that side of the business as head of revenue management in 2014. Two years later she was appointed head of corporate finance and was confirmed CFO in 2018. Hellen is keen to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the business and is grateful to be seconded to assist with operations.
“I am excited because this is an area I have never really worked in. I will be involved with ground services, which is the team that supports passengers and turns around the aircraft. I will work with my colleagues to ensure we offer our guests a memorable experience whether it’s on board the aircraft or on the ground. A lot of work goes into ensuring the flight takes off, this includes, boarding catering, fuelling, maintenance, routing, etc. Coordinating all these activities ensures an on-time performance and comfort for our guests,” she said.
A mother of three, Hellen cites her parents as pivotal influences in her career journey. Her father was also an accountant while her mother has always been a businesswoman who never tires of trying something new.