Clear skies ahead

Heiko Brix is no stranger to layoffs at German airline Lufthansa, which is again in the midst of a global restructuring. As its regional director for Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the veteran leader hopes his experiences will help lead the carrier to a safe landing

As a 10-year-old growing up in Dusseldorf, Germany, Heiko Brix would grab his bicycle and Polaroid camera after school, ride to the fences surrounding the local airport, and take pictures of aircraft after aircraft coming in and out of the city for hours on end.

Dusseldorf was one of Brix’s many childhood homes. His family moved regularly in the 70s for his father’s work, taking them also to Copenhagen, Denmark, and Athens, Greece – all by the time he turned 12.

Throughout all the change, one thing remained constant – Brix’s fascination with aviation and flying. He says he dreamed of becoming a pilot one day. And while that ambition did not eventuate, it’s something he views not with regret, but more self-deprecating humour – he cracks jokes about what an accomplished “remote control pilot” he is.

Brix knew he would have a career in the tourism and hospitality business since a course-changing three-month internship at a spa hotel in his teens.

And bigger things always seemed in store, as even before he turned 30, was already managing business travel agency Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Hamburg. 

Three years later, in 2001, he moved to German airline Lufthansa’s corporate travel unit, where he was initially responsible for all its travel agencies at home and abroad as a key account manager.

All those years of hard work and mileage in the corporate travel agency business in Germany eventually led Brix into the centre of the aviation business, his first love.

Since February last year, Brix has taken on the role of German airline Lufthansa Group’s regional director for Southeast Asia, New Zealand and Australia.

The appointment was also a full circle moment for Brix, whose father was a Lufthansa station manager for nearly 40 years.

The loyalty to Lufthansa appears to run in the family, as the father of two has himself spent more than 12 years at one of the world’s largest airlines.

ME MYSELF I

I love: Honesty

I dislike: Hidden agendas

My inspiration is: To frequently go back to basics by enjoying a few days on a Greek island or the Polish countryside and finding time for myself

My biggest weakness is: Swiss chocolate and traditional Linzertorte cake

In five years’ time, I’d like to: See my children standing on their own feet, being confident and happy

Favourite quote: “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans” John Lennon

Brix is humble about his achievements, which he credits to his ability to embrace change, in large part due to the many times he shifted homes in his early years.

“The only way to manage change is to embrace it,” he asserts.

This positive attitude towards change also informs his management philosophy today, which has become especially crucial during the current restructure.

In Southeast Asia, that has seen Lufthansa Group cancel its routes to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta since early 2016, around the time Brix assumed his current post. In the process, the airline has had to lower headcounts significantly in those markets. 

Still, Lufthansa Group remains Europe’s largest airline conglomerate in terms of employee size. As of December 2016, the group employs 124,000 workers globally

Brix recounts an earlier restructuring exercise. This was in 2009, when he was the managing director of Lufthansa’s call centre operations in Istanbul, Turkey.

He had to be involved with the laying off process then as well, something he found challenging, partly as he was still a fairly new manager, but also because he says Turkish people were “more emotional” than the Germans he was used to working with.

“I had to gain their hearts and minds first,” he said.

As a leader, Brix says it is always “painful” to let people go, but it has also become a fact of business he has learned to accept. 

“Restructuring teams is always a very difficult task,” he says. “We do not talk about numbers but about committed people and colleagues,” he says.

“Wherever I was challenged to manage these kinds of tasks, I tried to be very transparent and honest in communicating what exactly needed to be done to set up new structures, or even to close locations.”

But many times, Brix has found there is a silver lining for both the business and the employees themselves. He says the affected personnel often end up in new and sometimes better opportunities, both within Lufthansa Group and outside of it.

“Still, it is one of the most difficult targets to fulfil, and these challenges will never become a routine.”

Transitioning into the role

Coming from Europe, what was the transition into your current role in Southeast Asia like?

The key is to not overdo it. But on the other hand, I also have to regularly approach my people and really understand their individual market issues and needs.Compared to other positions that I took over before, in Istanbul, Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, the challenge in Asia has been that the teams are much more virtual, and much more remote. I’m overseeing the whole region all the way down south to New Zealand, which presents the challenge of how to keep the level of communication just right.

When I’m sitting so far away from some of these teams, there is also a learning curve involved in effectively challenging them to perform at their top level.

We are kind of an “ambassador” here in Singapore, collecting the needs and requirements of the customers in the region and the markets, even for more remote territories like The Philippines. Then we try to facilitate and ensure the requirements that the headquarters (in Frankfurt, Germany) has to deliver in order for us to work smoothly in each of the local markets.

So the biggest change for me was to be in an ambassador-like role, like a little headquarters in between the main headquarters and the local markets.

What are some of the specific difficulties of being in that “in-between” position?

In New Zealand for example, they might perceive me or our team here in Singapore as “oh they are far away, they are ‘headquarter thinkers’ and only follow the directions of the Frankfurt office”.

I would say that to avoid this type of “they” and “we” thinking, and to bring everyone together is the biggest challenge.  We need to say we are a unit that’s working in the market together, and we want to facilitate your needs and to bring your sales opportunities to speed.

And then just really leading people and staying in touch. I can only see my teams in Australia and New Zealand three or four times a year, because that involves a lot of travelling. So scheduling is another challenge for me.

How did you tackle the remote nature of your teams, as well as their different needs?

It’s a good question because only a few issues are similar and simultaneous. A lot are very specific.

For example, in The Philippines, the requirements are quite different from say, Singapore. Over there, the maritime business is much more dominant.

So a clear communication structure is very important, which I emphasise. I send out a regular newsletter where I compile the most important happenings that are relevant to and across all the teams.I also try to bring in some best practices that each market is employing, so that they can all share, learn, and be inspired by each other.

Another way we keep in touch is through Lync or Skype for regular video and voice conferences. Then there are very specific one-on-one, face-to-face sessions to really listen to each person and go through the different issues.

So I would say we have a multi-layered approach to address all the different needs because we have to funnel the strategies down. They need to be informed of the broad-level topics about what’s happening in Lufthansa as a whole, and they also need to understand what’s happening across Southeast Asia, as well as, finally, the market-specific topics.

If you only keep it at the broadest level, then staff would become frustrated because they don’t see their individual needs being addressed or reflected. And if you only go one-on-one, then they would ask ‘what’s happening up there in the world of Lufthansa?’

Impact of global restructuring on Asia

What were your business priorities when you took over?

We had just begun a restructuring effort when I first arrived. There was a clear headcount pressure, which is still ongoing and will keep going until 2018. A significant reduction of the headcount in my area was one of the greatest challenges.

Definitely for the offline stations that we have, this was a rather painful process. Offline markets are those countries where we don’t operate physical aircraft to, but still conduct sales initiatives from.

Obviously these people are highly-committed and highly-engaged, but somehow we had to align all the different parts in relation to potential and revenue. But this was also because we had to bring the same impact and direction to all three airlines under our group – Austrian Air, Swiss Air, and Lufthansa. We had to align the three products and really leverage the synergies so that we could have the same efficiency with fewer people.

How was Southeast Asia affected by the global restructuring?

From when I started in this role, the only destinations where we are still physically operating to are Thailand and Singapore. But we were much more present in the past. We used to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and even before that Manila and Ho Chi Minh City.

So this restructuring has affected us a lot more than other regions because we pulled out of quite a few destinations and had to reduce the teams proportionately. 

People management strategies

How involved are you with the people management strategies of Lufthansa?

I would say I am involved with developing our people into the right roles, which is, in fact, undergoing right now. We’re restructuring not only in terms of reducing our staff numbers to make the teams more efficient and lean, but also completely redeveloping their roles.

We have new roles, determined a year ago, to more strategically drive the business, including – for example – the account steering expert.

This role, in particular, is about being the peer of the accounts manager and then using analytics to challenge and support the accounts manager in looking for the right business opportunities beyond a simple shotgun approach.

These roles are new, and I was personally interested in who was going to fill them. So I was involved with picking these people, asking my country managers for their feedback and recommendations on each particular candidate.

So I would say in this restructuring period, I’m more involved, but in the more ideal periods (for which there is still some way to go) I will probably be involved a little bit less because we have great country managers who can take care of things.

How does Lufthansa try to be an employer of choice?

Our company stands for many highly-positive values. One of them is we really try to develop our people and have good infrastructure for doing so.

There is the Lufthansa School of Business, which is a very professional setup that really focuses on the individual training and development needs of our staff.

There is also an ongoing evaluation of our people policies with the HR team for Asia-Pacific here in the same building. They ask us directors for our needs, which is really crucial, especially right now as we are restructuring and building new roles.

So we are developing and customising training schemes according to the needs of our people, and that is really one of the core values of what we do as an employer.

As an organisation, we also do not have much hierarchy. Senior management is very transparent and open with their teams, and I think this is really appreciated by Lufthansa staff all over the world. 

Across the Lufthansa Group, we have a lot of different subsidiaries. You can be like me in Lufthansa In Touch (call centre), then move across to the passenger airline unit, or even on to the cargo side.

There is a variety of choices if you are willing to be flexible and brave enough to move into other surroundings. This is certainly another one of our greater core values as an employer. 

Business outlook

Are there plans to increase the number of routes again in the future?

We are definitely investigating on a regular basis how to increase capacity and also add new destinations to Asia.

What is already happening now is we are already increasing capacity within our existing routes. We upgraded, for example, the SwissAir route from Zurich to Singapore. This changed from an Airbus 340 aircraft to a Boeing 777, which is about 120 more seats on a daily basis. So that’s a pretty massive capacity increase.

And in Thailand we’re starting the next winter season with an Airbus 380, instead of the smaller Boeing 747. But what has not yet happened in the last two years is the invention of new destinations in Southeast Asia because, of course, we have just reduced some of the more challenging and less profitable destinations here.

That said, with the new technology aircraft that are coming, such as the Airbus 350, and also our upcoming joint venture with Singapore Airlines, we hopefully will be able to gain more corporate and leisure passengers, and start thinking of reinventing destinations.

Given the recent United Airlines fiasco, which was a result of an overbooking oversight, what is Lufthansa’s own overbooking policy?

Overbooking, as you know, is a very common commercial strategy to optimise the efficiency of the aircraft which is in the interest of the passengers to get a seat, and of the airline to be commercially successful.

So this has been a common strategy for decades in terms of revenue management and optimisation.

If it doesn’t work out, then we will offer a few passenger volunteers “denied boarding” credits before flight boarding, and this is a general airline procedure as far as we know.

Usually it’s a smooth procedure that happens all over the world on a fairly regular basis. 

 

For more Asia-Pacific CEOs and business leaders discussing their HR challenges, head to HRM Asia's dedicated Leaders Talk HR forum.

Inside Shopee's journey from startup to retail sensation
HRM Asia - 15 Feb 2018
Shopee encountered many resource challenges in its early years. Its Chief Commercial Officer Junjie Zhou shares how he guided the company to safe ground.
Leaders on leadership: Rolls-Royce's regional director
HRM Asia - 14 Feb 2018
Paul Harris, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars' Asia-Pacific Regional Director reveals the company's workforce plans for 2018.
Forecasting 2018's top three HR trends
Yamini Chinnuswamy - 12 Feb 2018
With transformation still a key theme, we take a look at the three towering issues that could well reinvent HR practices this year.
Up close and personal with a regional head of HR
Kelvin Ong - 09 Feb 2018
British American Tobacco's Asia-Pacific Head of HR Ji Yoon Chung gets candid.
Six reasons why you should invest in learning technology
HRM Asia - 07 Feb 2018
There are thousands of learning tools out there, and here are six guidelines to help your organisation make sense of them.
Asia's most effective workspaces: Tableau (Singapore)
Kelvin Ong - 07 Feb 2018
Last but not least, we go inside Tableau Asia-Pacific's headquarters - a space that encourages collaboration and inspires creativity.