By: Katie Roberts
Nationality: New Zealand, Singapore Permanent Resident
Position: CEO, Scoot
There aren’t many airline CEO’s who greet their passengers at the departure gates, but, while boarding a Valentine’s Day flight from Bangkok to Singapore, I spotted Scoot’s Campbell Wilson – recognizable in his trademark yellow polo shirt and wide grin. Granted, he’s probably the only airline CEO I would recognize, on account of his image appearing in Scoot’s phenomenally successful social media campaigns which have garnered 750,000 followers worldwide.
Fast forward a few months and, keeping a promise he made on that February flight, I interview Campbell, 41, at a coffee shop in Changi’s Terminal One. A sneak peak in the office upstairs belied the glamorous image of the airline industry. Campbell’s desk sits among dozens of others in one large nondescript room.
“In a start-up, you can’t hoard yourself off, because there are a constant stream of requests at any one time; matters that need quick guidance and validation,” he says, underlining his egalitarian upbringing in New Zealand, and management style. But, behind his casual demeanor is a steely determination: on the back of 12 months of solid achievements at Scoot, he recently ordered 20 Dreamliner 787s, which Boeing list at a cool $180 million each.
Other than a brief stint as a postman – to make ends meet while studying for a Master of Commerce and Business Administration degree at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch – Campbell has worked his entire career for Singapore Airlines (SIA). In 17 years he rose from management trainee to CEO of Scoot, and it was the break after graduating that gave him a taste for travel and an insight into expat life.
“I went to play sport, travel and lived in Birmingham in the UK,” he says. It’s a time he remembers with great fondness, despite Birmingham’s less than cosmopolitan reputation. “I had a fantastic time there, but I spent years telling my wife how grim the city was, but when we visited recently they’d done enormous amounts of redevelopment and it was great. My wife couldn’t believe the picture I’d painted with the new reality of Birmingham!”
During these ‘development’ years, Campbell visited North America to play hockey and recalls staying with a friend’s brother, an investment banker who’d been posted to New York. “I remember sleeping on the couch in his apartment. On waking I looked over my feet and there was the Empire State Building. I thought, this expatriate life seems pretty good.” The trip had sewn the seed.
On his return, Campbell says New Zealand “felt far away and remote” and among other job offers, he was attracted to SIA, “because in their advertisements they said the successful candidates will have the opportunity to relocate to other countries that the airline services.” He jumped at the opportunity to jump on board in 1996 and became marketing manager for New Zealand.
In the airline industry it’s impossible to enjoy a career without conflict or complaint; airport queues, immigration and delays are part and parcel of the industry, and they are also situations that bring out the very worst in the human spirit. One of the most memorable situations Wilson had to deal with was very early on in his career.
“A New Zealander travelling to Indonesia for a wood-cutting competition wanted to put his competition chainsaw in the overhead luggage locker. He was insistent, but of course there is no way this could happen. He was not being unreasonable, rather he had just not considered that it could be a problem,” he says with a smile.
After four years in New Zealand, Wilson relocated to Sydney in an agency sales role. Those three years passed quickly and he became restless for new challenges and “started to agitate to come to Singapore on the basis of the statement in the original recruitment ad”.
In 2003 he landed a spot at Head Office working in both network planning and revenue management roles. “SIA is a big carrier in a small market. There are five million Singaporeans, but SIA carries 20 million people a year. So to understand the majority of the market, the staff get rotated through different geographical locations, and different parts of the business,” he explains. “It means you are more able to contribute to what is a de facto multinational. Although airlines are not really multinational in the true sense, they have the vast majority of employees at home base, but they have a very big geographical footprint.”
After three years in Singapore, an opportunity arose for a posting to Vancouver as Vice President, the North American name for General Manager. Aged 35, Campbell ran the Canadian operation for two years. He recently returned for a visit and told me that everyone he worked with five years ago assembled for dinner. This is perhaps validation of his self-professed open management style. “I don’t believe in a lot of hierarchy or formality or deference. I think I empower people such that they don’t feel micro managed, but I don’t delegate to the extent that I am not aware of what is going on,” he says.
Campbell returned to Asia with a posting as General Manager in Hong Kong for two years, which coincided with the global financial crisis. “It was a fraught time as business was in a slump, and Hong Kong, and airlines in general, were badly affected.”
Ever the optimist, he is quick to praise his team, saying, “we managed the crisis with our heads held high” and nominates inaugurating the first A380 operation into Hong Kong as a highlight.
Campbell says his consensual approach to management has much to do with his nature, but also the experience he has gained working for an Asian company. “You learn to listen with your eyes, to pick up physical queues and without people telling you something, you get a sense of what they are thinking or relationships, and how things are going. It is critical in Asia, although to a lesser extent in Singapore but there are cultures where you can get it horribly wrong if you don’t have ability in that area.”
His subsequent posting to Japan in May 2010 was rocked by the devastating tsunami and earthquake. “Although none of the local staff were affected directly, the impact on them mentally, during a time of national tragedy and when under increased workload, was considerable. The office walls were cracked and there were constant after-shocks and concerns about radiation. People were naturally nervous, the buildings were moving, we were wondering ‘is this building structurally safe?’”
In those trying times Campbell says it was a matter of managing through a situation as best he could, and in a way that brought the team with him as they worked closely together to solve problems.
“Culturally, Japan wasn’t a huge shock for me, as I had management experience under my belt. If anything, it was the egalitarianism and openness that may have surprised the team, as they had not worked with a Caucasian before.”
He was appointed to his current role as CEO of SIA’s subsidiary budget airline with little fanfare. “You don’t apply for these roles. I received a summons to come back and start Scoot from scratch.”
He says there are a small number of examples of people outside the industry moving in to CEO roles, Richard Branson being one.
“As CEO you don’t need to have personal experience in all the engineering, the nuts and bolts. But you should understand how the pieces of an airline fit together, and have enough experience to be able to ask the right questions and know that people you put in certain positions have detailed experience, and manage them appropriately.”
It’s an industry he describes as “a very complex business, carrying human beings 10 km above the earth at 1,000 km an hour in a pressurized tube. You don’t want a lot of inexperienced people in that process. There are many complex moving parts, and consumers don’t quite appreciate the dance that goes together to get the airline to depart on schedule.”
Which is why, with his years of experience, he was appointed to start Scoot. “Two years ago it was an excel spreadsheet and five people. We have been flying for just one year and have five wide-body aircraft, six flights a day out of Singapore, 11 destinations, carried one million people and 400 staff. There’s no other example of an airline doing so much so quickly, it’s quite unique.”
And he won’t be slowing down any time soon, adding: “We’re moving to the new fleet of 787s which will be delivered from 2014 to replace the 777s, and this gives us room for further expansion.”
The airline business is as ever, under much pressure: it is labour, energy and capital intensive, a dangerous combination. It’s also affected by economics, terrorism, energy supply constraints and financial volatility. But Campbell says the rewards come from the knowledge that every day is different, complex, challenging but at its core, it’s fun. “There is a joy in travelling and ultimately, we are fulfilling dreams.”
Scoot operates six flights a day out of Singapore to cities including Sydney, Tianjing, Qingdao, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok and Taipei.
Campbell’s tips for succeeding in Asia
- Learn to listen with your eyes, pick up physical queues and get a sense of how things are going.
- Understand that yes is not always yes, and no does not always mean no
- For a new organization made up of a lot of diverse people with different cultural backgrounds and expectations, you need to channel the workplace culture in a direction that becomes self-sustaining, rather than imposed.
- There is more conservatism, because generally speaking failure is not accepted so easily in Asia as in the West. People don’t wish to be associated with it and as a consequence they come more risk averse
Campbell’s Career History
May 2011 – CEO, Scoot Singapore
March 2010 – May 2011 General Manager Japan
June 2008 – March 2010 General Manager Hong Kong
June 2006 – June 2008 Vice President Canada
April 2005 – June 2006 Network Planning Analyst, Head Office Singapore
March 2003 – April 2005 Network Revenue Analyst Head Office Singapore
April 2000 – March 2003 Agency Sales Manager New South Wales Australia
October 1999 – April 2000 Regional Marketing Manager South West Pacific
August 1998 – October 1999 Sales Development Manager New Zealand
April 1996 – August 1998 Joins Singapore Airlines Group. Marketing Executive New Zealand