Comair's Kirsten King: Flying high and staying grounded

The FD tells how she joined Comair to simplify her life, then her career took off.

Comair FD Kirsten King wasn’t aiming for career lift-off when she joined the aviation and travel company, but her hard work and dedication saw her taking to the runway. Together, she and the operator of kulula.com, as well as an airline under the British Airways livery as part of a license agreement, are reaching great heights.

When you are an audit manager at PKF (now merged with Grant Thornton), and you’re going through a divorce, and you want to simplify your life, what do you do? Well, if you’re Kirsten King, you take on the job of revenue auditor at Southern Africa’s largest private airline operator and establish a revenue accounting system for the organisation.

“PKF were Comair’s auditors, and that’s how I met the previous financial director Yasas Sri-Chandana. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life next – I live in Benoni, but was working in Sandton, and was now a single mom, after all. But I applied for, and was appointed to, the position of revenue auditor.”

Aligning finance with Sabre
Comair had taken the decision in 2011 to implement Sabre Airline Solutions’ Customer Sales and Service reservations system, which included inventory management and check-in systems, as well as the AirVision Planning suite that provides commercial planning systems to manage aircraft scheduling pricing and revenue, as part of an aggressive strategy to improve efficiencies and increase revenue.

This step took them away from their in-house-developed systems, so how this would affect the finance function needed to be addressed.

“Prior to that British Airways International had done all the revenue accounting for the British Airways (operated by Comair) brand and kulula’s revenue accounting was very simple owing to the previous inhouse systems. Typically, back-office functions are at the back of the queue when it comes to investment, because the company has to focus on what generates revenue. The Sabre project was coming along nicely, but finance needed to align with it, to be in a position to account for kulula revenue accurately. It was such an opportunity for me.”

Kirsten took up the role. As a CA, she knew how debits and credits worked, but knew very little about aviation. She had to have a “crash course” in the industry to learn the language and market forces. “They speak a different language – and it’s hard to keep up with – and I had to learn all of that. Yasas had me sit in on process redefinition workshops, working out how to get Sabre to work for us optimally.”

She recalls that in the middle of all of this change, Yasas announced he was immigrating to Australia. The position of financial director became available.

“I felt a little daunted, but bit the bullet and applied for the position.” And in 2014, Kirsten was appointed FD. She describes her first three years as a “baptism of fire”.  Those three years have passed, but even so Kirsten says it took “blood, sweat and tears” to deliver Comair’s latest set of results, which saw the aviation company reporting a record profit of R326 million after tax for the financial year ended June 2018, and a 10 percent increase in profitability.
 
Chasing margins  
The airline business delivered a seven percent increase in revenue despite challengers in the market in the form of competitors Flysafair and Mango. Kirsten attributes this success to Comair’s aggressive fleet investment cycle.

“The aircraft are starting to pay for themselves, there’s a fuel burn saving of between 11 percent and 15 percent on a 737-800 vs a 737-400. This means that kulula can keep its average fare down, putting pressure on other airlines in terms of fuel costs. In fact, we have had our most profitable years when the oil price is high.”

Headline earnings per share increased by four percent to 69.5c a share, from last year’s 67c per share. Kirsten said:

“After 72 years of trading profitability our share price doesn’t seem to change. It’s the result of two things: there’s the perception of risk around aviation, and we’re just too small. We have to grow our business, but we can’t grow our business because there’s already excess capacity in the local market.”  

Non-airline growth
Because of this, Comair is turning to its non-airline business to deliver growth as it is “less risky and less capital intensive”. The non-airline business is made up of the lounges, the travel business, a training division and an IT venture, and is contributing 25 percent to Comair’s total profit before tax. Kirsten says that they are hoping to get that contribution up to 50 percent with a number of targeted expansions and investments.

Kirsten describes the IT venture as an exciting step for Comair. “We’ve embarked on a joint venture with an IT company, taking Comair’s IT budget and transferring it into a JV. The JV will provide as wide range of services with Comair initially as the anchor client, working on compliance and governance around data, and then as a second stream, will be providing IT services and operations to other corporate customers.”

The final aspect of the IT venture is to take Comair’s years of aviation related IT discipline and repackage and commercialise it as an “aviation in a box” solution, potentially for smaller aviation companies that don’t want to spend money on expensive airline software. “That will hopefully cause some disruption in the market,” Kirsten says.

Growth in the non-airline business will allow Comair to do the capital-intensive work that they are hoping to on the airlines side.

“The airline is achieving a margin of five percent after tax, which is a thin margin, hence the diversification into the non-airline business, which can potentially deliver 30 percent. If we want to keep our fleet replacement cycle at its optimum, we need to be closer to a 10 to 15 percent margin, which is hard to crack, no matter how hard we work.”

New horizons
When asked where to from here, Kirsten says it’s difficult to say, “because I didn’t expect to get here in the first place. I don’t have huge ambitions because status doesn’t mean much to me – and I need to maintain a work-life balance for my family.”

Kirsten says that it’s important to her to add value to society – “even a little bit”. “I want to give something back and figure out where to become more valuable to other people rather than focusing on my own ambitions. So right now, I am trying to figure out how to do that.”

Kirsten on the ground
Kirsten says that despite being fulfilled by her work at Comair, she has a lot more grey hairs. To maintain some balance, she prioritises spending time with her ten-year-old daughter and walking her Labrador (or, she says, he walks her). She also finds that yoga benefits her mind and body – but struggles to find the time to establish a regular routine.

“I am not a great cook but I like sitting in the kitchen with a glass of wine while my partner cooks. And I love reading. I read anything and everything. I can’t go to sleep without reading. It’s how I wind down.”