Warren Buffet invested in airlines in the 1980’s, lost money, and famously swore off investing in airlines ever again.
Some 30 years later, the Oracle of Omaha changed his mind, against his own advice. He poured money into airlines in 2016, only to sell Berkshire Hathaway’s positions at a loss in 2020.
Suffice it to say that even at the best of times, the airline industry is an unforgiving thicket of volatility.
“Geopolitics, a volcano, a pandemic— there’s a lot of uncertainty,” says Wouter Van Beek, EMBA ’23.
All in a day’s work for the Dutch transplant. His career at Air France-KLM has been underpinned by a decisive blend of financial wizardry and a calm, steadying presence. He’s lived and worked around the world, in roles with ever-increasing magnitude at the airline’s offices in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
“I’m truly passionate about the aviation sector,” he explains. “It’s fast paced and dynamic, bridging cultures and connecting the world.”
He shined as the airline’s Director of Investor Relations, a role which highlighted his keen financial sense and reassuring air, at a time when the conglomeration of two European legacy flag-carriers was undergoing a massive upheaval. This revamp was punctuated by the much-ballyhooed arrival of the airline’s Canadian CEO Ben Smith, heralding a dramatic change of direction.
With Smith came a strategic pivot. Traditionally beholden to cumbersome processes, the airline now leans into the tremendous potential and possibility of the Group’s businesses, by simplifying needless complexities across the board.
“We have reached an important turning point [incommercial flying.] COVID-19 brought an unprecedented crisis for the industry. We also have the responsibility and immense challenge to reduce the carbon footprint of flying.”
Its leadership team added Wouter to its ranks in 2020.
“We have reached an important turning point. COVID-19 brought an unprecedented crisis for the industry. We also have the responsibility and immense challenge to reduce the carbon footprint of flying,” he explains.
An executive choice
In no uncertain terms, the pandemic grounded airlines to a halt. At Air France-KLM alone, the immediate aftermath saw a 90% reduction in activity. So, as part of its 2020 strategy to find its way out of the woods, the group’s leadership invited Wouter to play a key role in the group’s turnaround efforts. He would be Vice President, Transformation and Innovation Office, a role involving impactful decision-making in the airline’s full-scale transformation program in response to COVID-19. Among his duties are leveraging an arsenal of innovations that hold the potential of disrupting the future of the industry.
Still, it is his first executive-level position outside of the familiar confines of finance. Wouter knew that taking on a role that tasked him with challenging the status quo and making strategic decisions in areas as varied as cargo to commercial and industrial matters meant he needed fresh perspectives.
“My career was at a crossroads. I wanted to develop myself more broadly from a business perspective,” he says.
“An EMBA was the right fit to help me develop my leadership skills and strategic vision. The EMBA is, as I see it, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accelerate my life-long-learning journey, meet inspirational people, and give back by inspiring the people around me to succeed with their career objectives and personal development.”
“I noticed that the HEC Paris program focuses heavily on future trends, advanced leadership development, and adapting to unpredictable economic developments. It was the clear first choice.”
Unsurprisingly, he had his pick of elite programs. When he began to dig into the crux of the factors that determine EMBA fit, though, HEC Paris kept surfacing as the right choice.
“If I was going to devote so much time and resources to it, I wanted to do a top-ranked program. I compared the differences in program content between a handful of schools, and HEC Paris turned out to be a bit more progressive than the other institutions. I noticed that the HEC Paris program focuses heavily on future trends, advanced leadership development, and adapting to unpredictable economic developments. It was the clear first choice.”
He had considered diving into an Executive MBA as soon as he arrived in his new position in France, but COVID scuppered any thought of that. In airlines, as in life, timing is everything, and another advantage of the HEC Paris EMBA— its five-intake flexibility—came to the fore.
“When I took my new role in January 2020, my job was 24/7 crisis management. Doing an EMBA only became feasible or workable in the fall of 2020. So when I had finished my research and made up my mind about where I wanted to go, the year was already over and I was too late for the January 2021 track,” he explains.
“I think I was one of the first to sign up for the September 2021 track.”
Already making an impact
The HEC Paris September track is structured into a modular format, with 7-10-days of intensive classes every 90 days.
“The first course started with leadership reflection and development. From the beginning, you’re encouraged to contribute your thoughts even to discussions about subjects on which you have less expertise. I think this approach makes you a more well-rounded leader,” he says. “The Leadership Development plan which emerged that week was very helpful. It really helped as a framework for me to become a more balanced and more impactful leader.”
The soft skills and leadership insights are complemented by theoretical frameworks that he’s been able to apply in his work at Air France-KLM.
“The diversity of profiles is enormous, from hospitality to professional athletes to start-ups and large corporations. Their examples and lines of thinking makes the course content that much richer.”
“One of my key tasks at work is figuring out how I can maximize value creation within the Air France-KLM holding group. The Odyssey 3.14 Business Strategy technique from Professor Laurence Lehmann-Ortega and Professor Helene Musikas were very relevant and useful for me there. Now whenever we embark on new projects and initiatives, this is one of the theoretical frameworks I use. And It’s broader than that, too. In business strategy, it’s important that we’re not just innovating and transforming for the sake of it; we must have a deliberate ambition for the group.”
When it came to instant impact from class, he says, “I was able to use these lessons right away.”
And lessons on strategy and insights into leadership have been consolidated and amplified in scope many times over by discussions with his classmates.
“When you spend an intensive week with a group of people from all around the world, it feels like a strong bonding period. The diversity of profiles is enormous, from hospitality to professional athletes to start-ups and large corporations. Their examples and lines of thinking makes the course content that much richer.”
More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe. Nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris offers the best EMBA program in the world; click here to learn more.
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