'The first time I let somebody go as a result of poor performance left a bit of a scar'

Stobart Air’s Graeme Buchanan talks about why he’d probably be a builder in an alternate life.

By Conor McMahon Deputy editor, Fora

DUBLIN-BASED AVIATION outfit Stobart Air is probably best known for operating the Aer Lingus Regional brand and Flybe flights from London Southend Airport and the Isle of Man.

The firm, which was spun out of Aer Arann in 2014, serves more than 40 routes throughout 11 European countries from bases in the UK and Ireland. Its Irish services include short-haul flights from Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Kerry and Donegal airports.

In addition to its franchise business, Stobart Air provides private air charter flights for the likes of sports teams, tour operators and corporate firms.

As part of our weekly question-and-answers series, we spoke to Stobart Air managing director Graeme Buchanan about his alternative life as a builder, why some airlines are soon in for a shock, and his admiration for Seán Quinn.

Here’s what he had to say:

16 08 G Buchanan Graeme Buchanan
Source: Maxwells Dublin

On average, what time do you start work and when do your finish?

We have a daily sales report that comes in at 6.11am every morning. I’m usually awake, sitting there waiting for the email to come in.

There’s a bit of context to getting up that early, it’s not just that I’m completely sad: I live in Enniskillen, but I work in Dublin so I have a reasonable commute.

The commute really doesn’t bother me in any way. I actually enjoy the time to think. It’s a very easy drive.

In terms of finishing, it really can be any time. I have an ambition to be in the car at the latest at 5.30pm. More times than not, it’s around 6pm.

What’s the one work skill you wish you had? 

I have a tendency to be very direct, so I wish I could be considered more patient and thoughtful.

I do find it very difficult when somebody’s giving me a long-winded introduction and explanation. I just want to say, “Can we get to the point? What is it that you want from me?”

That doesn’t always go down well – some people take that very badly. So I’d like to be less direct.

If you were forced to pick a different career, what do you think you would be doing instead?

I would probably be a builder, believe it or not. I think building is a very rewarding career. You see the progress that you make every day.

I like getting stuck in to physical work. We quite recently renovated a house and my wife said if there was any donkey work to be done, I’d be the best man to do it.

Things like lifting slabs and moving blocks around the place, I was more than happy to attend to that after a day in the office because I like being outside.

Aeroplanes at Dublin Airport
Source: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

When I was a student, I was very fortunate and very lucky to get a job cleaning dishes.

It paid handsomely, but the downside of it was I was stuck in a metal box about two sq m. There was a hatch on one side and a hatch on the other. There was a sink in front of me. The dirty dishes came in one hatch and had to go out the other side clean.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the job was at sea and I did 16-hour shifts. There was a bit of mental torture because the sailing took four hours to go over, but when you got to the destination, you had to keep going back and forth.

What’s the toughest work-related decision you’ve ever had to make?

There have been a few, but the hardest was the first time I ever had to let somebody go as a result of poor performance and making that final decision that this was not salvageable. I found that very difficult. It’s probably left a little bit of a scar on me.

I took a long time to come to the decision because I really thought I could help the person come around. In the end it didn’t happen.

When I look back now I realise I was too good to them and not good enough to myself. It weighed on me and that was probably the reason it was the hardest decision.

What bad work (or business) habit have you had to kick?

I’m still working on it: letting go. I have a huge capacity for detail. It’s trying to step out of it, put the trust in the team and just let go.

I’m very blessed to work with guys I would very happily call world-class in their field. So it’s a great privilege to work with them. I just need to let them get on with it, which is something that I’m wrestling with.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in your industry? 

I’d encourage them to enjoy the variety in the industry. Most people would say that the pace of change is very high.

There’s also the ability to travel the world. Some of the skills that you can acquire in this industry are global, so it’s a very rewarding career. You will be stretched and pulled in many different directions.

There are huge opportunities for people, so just get stuck in and enjoy it and good things will happen.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your company right now?

We are traditionally associated with being part of the Aer Lingus Regional franchise. But we’re actually growing another part of our business under the Flybe franchise out of London Southend Airport.

In relative terms, we’re trying to build a business that’s 50% the size of our existing business within an 18-month period.

Thankfully, we’re well on track with achieving that, but that pace of growth, the size and scale of that ambition, is the biggest challenge that we’re facing right now.

Source: Stobart Air

What do you think is the biggest threat to your industry today?

The industry is on a perpetual trend. Everybody’s ordering more aircraft and, while air travel is growing, it’s just hard to see whether there’s market demand for all the capacity that’s coming.

The more short-term challenge is the recent spike in the price of oil. Oil is a key cost in our industry. For those that are not well hedged, they are about to experience a shock.

Ultimately, your hedge will only defer the pain to the point in time in which your hedge rolls off, but better to be in that position and have the pain deferred than to be facing into that kind of a shock.

What has been your biggest luxury spend? 

I have a weakness for cars. I’m from Northern Ireland and people from Northern Ireland are associated with having petrol in their veins. I’m no different.

I have been resisting for a long period of time. I set an ambition when I was 20 years old, and I just took the opportunity to realise it recently and acquired a Porsche 911.

Who do you think is Ireland’s most underrated business person?

I had the pleasure of working in Quinn Group for a long number of years. The leader of that business for a very long time was of course Seán Quinn.

I fundamentally respect the businesses that he built and the manner in which he built them. Obviously if things didn’t turn out well in the end, I perhaps wouldn’t hold him in the same very high esteem.

But in terms of admiring the achievements, what he did in the Cavan-Fermanagh region and the breadth of industries that he did it in and the simple ethos that he brought, I’ve yet to work in another organisation where people are identified with the business as strongly as that. It was truly inspirational.

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