Kirsten King, Comair FD, talks Benoni and Boeings

Airlines are a notoriously difficult business, with narrow profit margins and stiff competition. They are also prey to the volatility of oil prices, as well as fickle exchange rates. But for Kirsten King, a self-proclaimed Benoni girl who entered the “grey-suited” world of accountancy, this is a place not only for the day-to-day administration of finance but also for networking, learning, and a few strong cups of tea.

Since her appointment in 2014 as financial director of Comair, South Africa's oldest independent airline operator, Kirsten reckons she's learned plenty of lessons.

Expect and relish variety

"My responsibility is to provide a financial perspective and input into Comair's business strategy and to manage the finance department," Kirsten says. "Although my role is financial management, a substantial part of the work involves people, whether that's providing guidance to my team, networking with other departments of Comair, or hammering out new efficiencies and solutions with suppliers, customers or other stakeholders."

Comair, which has an uninterrupted, 70-year record of profitable operation, has two airline brands, kulula.com and British Airways in Southern Africa, as well as several other business units, including the Comair Training Centre, which conducts training for air crews of 36 airlines, as well as the South African and Indian air forces. It's also replacing its fleet with new aircraft from the Boeing 738-800 family.

"It's a very diversified operation. While I naturally conduct the day-to-day duties typical of an FD role, each day begins with scanning the news for relevant developments and checking exchange rates and fuel prices while managing the daily flow and trends of business: cash and treasury management, financial reporting, variance analysis and forecasting, and of course, responding to an ever-increasing volume of electronic communications."

You learn more if you're humble and open to change

"Growing up, I never envisaged being in the position I am today. Being an FD in the corporate world was certainly not a childhood goal of mine and I wasn't the most academically excellent at school or the most disciplined university student. But life has a way of lobbing some curveballs at you in your personal and professional circumstances, and I'm grateful for some of the tough times I've experienced, especially as I learnt the value of my stubborn, never-say-die attitude."

Embrace challenges and moments of seminal change

"I was part of the team that managed Comair's move from our internally developed ticketing platform to the Sabre Hosted Systems platform, and that was the moment I knew I was where I wanted to be. I suppose the transition spoke to my predilection for change and progress. Seeing years of hard work across all sectors of the company culminate in a moment of flicking the switch on the old and activating the new was awe-inspiring, especially as every employee had worked towards it."

Seek out teams who challenge and support you

"I'm very lucky to work with an executive team, each member of which is passionate and highly skilled in their own right, and each of which continually inspires and motivates me to be by best. Our CEO, Erik Venter, is a role-model for how to take things in your stride without seeming to break a sweat. His even temperament, humility, level-headedness and unflappable logic are just a few of the things that make him a great leader."

Business needs to be clever about education

"Corporates are already investing heavily in areas of education and capacity development where the government's resources are stretched. One area with real potential is graduate development, which is ideal for taking students from university and training them in business in ways that combine theory, mentoring and on-the-job training."

Enjoying downtime

"Everyone on our team works hard, so decompressing and finding work-life balance is important. I like to walk the suburbs, though it's really my labrador who walks me. I've also taken up yoga and while I'm by no means an accomplished practitioner, I've found it has real benefits for mind and body. When not working or exercising, I like to spend time with my nine-year-old daughter and my partner of 20 years, usually in the kitchen, cooking dinner and enjoying a glass of wine."