Walter Dias, managing director - Greater China and Korea at United Airlines, talks about how he flew up the career ranks
They say a solid grounding in finance and accounting can take you almost anywhere, and the career moves made by Walter Dias certainly stand as vivid testimony to that statement.
Along the way, the Hong Kong-based managing director - Greater China and Korea of United Airlines (UA) has seen the world and switched industries. He’s also dealt with the multiplicity of challenges that come with opening new markets, building organisations, and creating a competitive edge in times of both rapid expansion and economic recession.
At present, the emphasis is very much on growth. One key objective is to add direct services linking US cities with new destinations in mainland China, such as the planned non-stop route from San Francisco to Xian. Another is to keep increasing capacity elsewhere in line with climbing customer demand, even with a current weekly total of 103 transpacific flights.
“I’m very lucky and privileged to be responsible for China at this time,” says Dias, who was also recently appointed chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “It is a very dynamic market and obviously growing fast, so we are constantly monitoring cities with potential for new services and are ready to make it happen.”
All of this is quite some distance from where he started out.
He was raised in the US state of Pennsylvania, where his father owned a service station outside Philadelphia. He graduated from Penn State University in 1982 with a degree in finance and accounting before joining PwC and doing audits in Houston. “It was a great way to get business experience and understand best practices,” he says. “It was also a great company to work for. But Houston then was a boom town, not unlike Hong Kong and China today, and headhunters were always calling with new opportunities.”
Partly inspired by a childhood interest in geography and the idea of travel, he joined Geosource, an a Houston-based oil exploration company. At the time, the company part of the Fortune 500 and had operations all over the world. In due course, he was given assignments in major cities such as London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Rio, as well as others “in the middle of deserts and the jungles of southern Sudan – places you wouldn’t pick for a vacation.”
Though officially with the audit department, the work was not all finance-related. Out in the field, it involved looking for operational efficiencies and checking compliance with regulations, which also led to the occasional hair-raising adventure.
“One time up in the mountains in the US, we were snowed in for three days in blizzard conditions and a complete whiteout. When the helicopter could finally get back to pick us up, we had to follow telegraph lines all the way out.”
Despite the travel, thrills and challenges, Dias sensed a need for change. The feeling intensified when a corporate takeover brought about an unwanted move to Dallas. “The oil industry is tough,” he says. “It’s very up and down, so in one of the downdrafts I decided to look for something a bit more stable.” Following a friend’s tip-off, the outcome was a job with Houston-headquartered Continental Airlines which, in 1987, had just come out of bankruptcy. All things considered, it was an interesting prospect. The company was regarded as an innovator and, to begin with, Dias worked for an experienced industrial engineer who was putting together an audit team charged with improving company operations across the board.
“It was more like an internal consulting department and a great way to learn how an airline runs,” he says. “To make sure flights leave on time is a carefully choreographed ballet. Thousands of people are involved to make it happen. As a newcomer to the industry, I might not have known the details of ‘loans and borrows’ for spare parts, or about arbitrage on the price differential of fuel, but I could take a fresh look at problems and solutions and my mentor was able to point me in the right direction.”
Providing extensive all-round experience, the position led to an invitation to assist the CFO of Continental Micronesia. Operating as a standalone airline with its own code and routes, it carried up to a million tourists a year, mainly from Japan to Guam and Saipan. In terms of margins – not absolute dollars – it was also one of the most profitable airlines in the world. With some prior knowledge of Japan travel agency agreements and frequent-flyer programmes, Dias became sales and marketing director and relished the opportunity. Based in Guam, he had a first-rate product to sell and the scope to act. Incidentally, he was living in a tropical paradise a few minutes from the nearest golf course.
“I could make decisions and, right away, see what was working,” he says. “At the peak, there were 3,000 employees, but thanks to the very good team spirit, it almost felt like a family.”
Not surprisingly, Dias sought to recreate that spirit and attitude when subsequently given a wider regional brief in Hong Kong – and, especially so, after the 2010 merger between UA and Continental. Since then, there has been no shortage of action, which has seen the launching new routes, upgrading services and – a current priority – enhancing the reservations systems.
“In the past, I was always jealous of people working for UA and of their Asia-Pacific network, so I was thrilled when the companies got together,” he says. “Certainly, there have been some bumps in the road over the last five years, but it is a symbiotic relationship. Now, my biggest focus is on doing a better job for frontline employees by giving them the right tools, so they can do an even better job for our customers.”
Walter Dias gives his top five leadership lessons
Lend an ear “For managers, the primary thing is to listen to your customers: they are really the boss. If you aren’t providing what they are looking for, you won’t be in business for long.”
Support staff “As part of that, Also Listen closely to the people involved in routine interactions with customers and provide all the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.”
Stay in touch “Don’t get isolated from the day-to-day operations. A manager should get out of the office or at least out from behind the computer to find out what is happening on the ground–and in the air.”
Keep update “Make sure you are exposed to new developments in the marketplace and in technology, so you stay on the cutting edge and are able to adapt.”
Build a base “In the aviation business, there are many external forces you have no control over. But With a good team in place, you can address any problems that come up.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Gaining altitude.