Aviation is a dynamic and fast-paced industry and Etihad Airways Engineering CEO Abdul Khaliq Saeed, a recognised leader in the aircraft MRO business, walks tall among his peers as he transforms the business units with his strategic vision
Aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is a high-precision industry carrying out its activities on aircraft with a regulatory framework. This helps to facilitate safe and secure skies for millions of passengers to their dream destinations. Abu Dhabi-based MRO unit Etihad Airways Engineering, an Etihad Aviation Group company, does just that and is a Middle Eastern pioneer in the commercial aircraft MRO business.
At the helm of Etihad Airways Engineering is Abdul Khaliq Saeed, a veteran of 40 years in the aviation industry.
The suave, soft-spoken Chief Executive Officer minces no words when it comes to quality and safety. “In this industry it’s all about the high quality service and on-time delivery with exceptional levels of customer satisfaction,” he stresses as he takes Arabian Knight on a tour of the state-of-the-art facilities and hangars of Etihad Airways Engineering, the largest commercial MRO service provider in the Mena region.
“We work as one team with one mission to provide industry-leading aircraft maintenance and engineering solutions at par with world-class quality and safety standards to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations. Our goal is to be the brand of future MRO services, the provider of choice. I am glad I am part of something bigger and contribute towards an amazing journey,” continues Saeed, who was called in to take up the responsibility in 2017.
Etihad Airways Engineering’s modern facility with innovative platforms, located adjacent to Abu Dhabi International Airport, offers six aircraft hangars for aircraft maintenance with a built-up area of 66,000 sq m, inclusive of a 10,000 sq m painting facility. Its custom-designed A380 hangar can accommodate up to three superjumbos simultaneously under the same roof, the only such facility in the world. Another 140,000 sq m of aircraft parking area is also available for light maintenance checks and other non-scheduled maintenance activities.
Last year was very challenging for Saeed, who had been entrusted with the task of not only ensuring the quality of service and timely delivery, but also improving and strengthening the financial health of the company.
Saeed’s MRO experience, knowledge of the global aviation market and an understanding of the ‘pulse of the people’ helped him to achieve record results for the company in just a year, winning him laurels from the rest of the business.
“2018 was a very successful year for us operationally and financially. It recorded a successful year for on-time performance and highest customer satisfaction that place Etihad Airways Engineering as one of the most reliable and best-in-quality MRO service providers. We developed a stronger relationship with airlines and OEMs, supporting our approach to develop a global heavy maintenance footprint – servicing more than 250 aircraft and winning 15 new customers. Our growth has mirrored our customer needs,” says Saeed proudly. “I am proud of our achievements and particularly happy that I have been able to deliver what has been asked and expected of me. It has been a great year for the organisation and me, personally.”
Was he confident of success when he took up the job? “Transition was challenging yet seamless. We are in a fast-paced environment, all I had to bear in mind was to start absorbing changes quickly,” he says about the successful journey.
Saeed is no stranger to the challenge of bringing companies back on track. He was earlier handpicked to lead Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies (ADAT) in 2011 as its President and CEO and then Abu Dhabi’s Turbine Services and Solutions (TS&S) as its CEO from 2014. Both at ADAT (which later on became Etihad Airways Engineering) and TS&S, Saeed succeeded in driving the business with his strategy and leadership skills. No wonder he has won the sobriquet ‘turnaround man’ of the MRO industry.
Asked about what strategies brought about the transformation at Etihad Airways Engineering, Saeed credits it mainly to the cultural change he has been able to bring in the organisation. “We don’t compete with one another. We believe that ‘Team work makes the dream work’. Team culture sets the stage for how people interact, communicate, create, challenge one another and perform their work. It creates trust, accountability and high performance. Think of it as a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine.”
Detailing the approach, he adds: “I am a compassionate and courageous leader who is willing to go against convention to inspire people to be better and do better. When my employees can be part of the decision-making process, are treated respectfully, and have a sense of belonging, they give their best to the company. Lead by listening. To lead is to serve, and to serve is to care.”
Explaining further, he says: “People who report to you directly should do what you do and it will percolate to the next level and the level next. It’s one mission and we are one team. For us, the customer comes first and safety is paramount. Every day and night we must deliver the same quality and there is no room for complacency.”
The company has 2,200 employees from more than 60 nationalities. “I have watched it grow and evolve in amazing ways. ‘One team, one mission’ means a commitment to support and it works. I wouldn’t call diversity as challenging – in fact it’s more a thriving platform. We have a better understanding of customer needs and increased innovation and creativity in all working platforms,” says Saeed, recounting his own experience over the years.
In September 2017, Saeed was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of Etihad Airways Engineering responsible for MRO and engineering services for Etihad Airways and third party customers.
An aeronautical engineer by trade, Saeed started his career with Gulf Air and moved up the ladder gradually. He has held different leadership positions within Gulf Air in Bahrain, Jet Airways in India and in Mubadala Aerospace, Abu Dhabi.
Saeed is pragmatic with a disarming sense of humour. As he moves around the facilities (he visits the hangars almost every day as a part of his ‘walk the floor’ initiative), he makes it a point to greet every worker and enquire about their well-being.
“The real engine of our business and our success factor is people. My success is my employees. I care for them, treat them well and make them feel they truly matter. We take pride in providing our people the best facilities,” says the CEO, showing off the modern staff canteen. Saeed even has a plan to build a café overlooking the hangar, giving staff and visitors an overview of the activities around adding a creative space for the break hours.
“The airline MRO industry is fiercely competitive; we have to make sure that we have the right people at the right jobs,” he continues, emphasising the importance he gives to his employees. Today, Etihad Airways Engineering is the biggest MRO service provider in the Mena region, yet Saeed is still gunning ahead. He carries a relentless drive for growth and his ambition is to take the company to the next level, to make it one of the top MROs in the world – not necessarily in size, but in quality and focusing on other service deliverables.
“I have a vision, a vision for the company that will stand the test of time. It is achievable as long as the team is focused and we all drive in the same direction and to the same goal. If you want to be a winner, you need a winning team,” says Saeed, who is always on the lookout for new opportunities and new challenges. “We are continuously innovating and evolving to become the growth enabler that will resolve complexities in maintenance services for all customers of all sizes.”
This year, Saeed’s focus area is expansion of facilities incorporating digital transformation and other capability developments.
“Our customer base is expanding and continues to do so with the new additions such as Saudi Arabian Airlines and Norwegian, with whom we are working closely to grow the third party business bringing in more revenue. We have the capability, we have the credibility and expertise to grow. More than half of our business comes from third party customers, with the rest coming from Etihad. It’s all about Etihad Airways Engineering’s experience and the on-going challenge is to make sure this experience is consistent with the expectations. Earn your customers’ trust, loyalty will follow. Pride of association works wonders,” he informs.
“We have taken a bigger target this year. We need to get more revenue and we have a plan and I am confident that we will achieve the set targets.”
Speaking on the new technologies being employed or planned to be implemented, he says the company is taking major steps in the direction of ‘innovation’. It’s already deploying 3D printing technology for some cabin interiors. It’s also looking at technology to bring a holistic approach to transform MRO operations such as paperless shop floor, inventory management, fuselage inspection by drone, among others yielding powerful results down the line.
“We are also trying to expand further into the VIP aircraft business. Already we are offering maintenance services to a few but we want to go into the interiors side of the business utilising our design and manufacturing capabilities. It’s a nice business to be in,” he says.
At the recent Bahrain International Airshow, Etihad Airways Engineering announced a strategic collaboration with Moog as a part of its business development initiatives. The latter will support Etihad Airways Engineering to expand its component repair capabilities to become a Centre of Excellence for component repair and overhaul business for the region.
Saeed is also keen to establish a Centre of Excellence for A350 and B787 Dreamliners. “We have already trained our staff for A350 maintenance. The first A350 will come for maintenance in March this year. We are ready to invest in new technology and capability thereby helping our people to deliver their best,” he says further.
On the importance given to the industrial sector in Abu Dhabi, he says industrial growth is a big part of the emirate’s Vision 2030. “From an early stage, the UAE government has realised the importance of aviation to the country’s sustainable development. What I have seen gives me a lot more enthusiasm for the next decade and more. We are putting Abu Dhabi on the map in the aviation sector. We are acting as an enabler of the 2030 Vision, providing services not only to the national airline of the UAE, but also opening doors to other airlines globally, making the borders seemingly less important. The more we expand, the more benefit will accrue to Abu Dhabi” he says.
So how did it all begin for Saeed? Initially, he was interested to join the ship building industry but it was his brother who encouraged and motivated him to join aviation.
“When I was in the technical school, my brother Yousif was working in Gulf Air and he would come home and tell us about his day-to-day activities and share his experiences. It created an excitement and fuelled my passion to work in the aviation industry. When Gulf Air came to the school to recruit trainees, I took the opportunity and joined them.
“I was lucky to be sent aboard for training in Scotland. After the training, I took many courses to enhance my knowledge in the field and climbed the ladder. I always learned new things and worked hard to be where I am now. I was focused on my ambitions and always wanted to grow,” says Saeed, whose growth trajectory took him into various positions in Gulf Air, up to Vice President, Technical.
“It has been an incredible journey – challenging and exciting at the same time. Every day is a different story, a very fulfilling journey,” reminisces Saeed. “As long as you know what you want to do and you put your heart and soul into it, nothing can stop you from achieving your goal.”
His advice to the youngsters who wish to enter the aviation sector is: “Discover what you love, what you are good at and be the best in it. Don’t stop learning and follow your dreams. Aviation is a beautiful sector, which keeps you on your toes. The excitement never ends; every day is a new challenge.”
Saeed quotes Thomas Edison’s famous words ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that the light bulb won’t work’ and says that if he had given up, we would still be in the dark. He urges the youth to believe in themselves. “There is nothing called failure, it’s just something that is not working. Start again and never give up,” he concludes.
‘Stay Humble, Stay Focused’
Abdul Khaliq Saeed, Etihad Airways Engineering CEO is a Bahraini achiever who retains the charm of the ‘Island of Golden Smiles’ even after 40 years at the rough and tumble of the industrial shop floor.
“Stay humble, stay focused”, these are his watchwords and he greatly values the early lessons learnt at home.
Walking down memory lane, he says: “I had very caring parents, who not only looked after me and my seven siblings well, but also were keen on educating and shaping our future”. Saeed’s father, who initially worked for Aramco and later moved to Bahrain, was very dedicated to the family. “He worked hard to ensure that we were all brought up well and succeeded in life. He always encouraged us to do better and better in life and that paid off”, he remembers.
As a child, though Saeed was not a class-topper, he was among the high scorers and recollects elder brother Tariq urging him to study hard.
A strong family man, he cherishes the traditional bonding that exists among the older generation of Bahrainis. “The best part was the close-knit society – it was like a big family. As children, we enjoyed playing with others from the neighborhood or going out. These days we don’t do that and we are over protective of our children”, he says ruefully.
“The traditional values, imbibed during those formative years, helped shape our character and we are able to pass them on to our next generation so they can be valuable to the society”, he continues.
Saeed has four sons and he is proud that all are doing well in life. He is also all praise for his wife Laila, who has been a great source of strength for the family as he chased his dreams.
“Laila is an incredible lady, a good wife and a mother. While I was travelling for work, she took good care of the kids,” he says. Laila is also involved in many charitable and humanitarian activities.
Saeed goes back to family in Bahrain every weekend. “We all meet for Friday lunch at my father’s house – all brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren. I am very proud of this culture”, he adds.
His rest and retirement plans? Let the thought perish. “That hasn’t crossed my mind yet. As long as I have good health and as long as I enjoy work, I will carry on,” he says firmly.
He enjoys watching football, playing table tennis, darts and pool. He also loves mentoring his employees and youngsters. “This is the time when you can pass your experience and others can benefit from it”.
– By Sree Bhat
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