Low-cost model a runway success for HK Express’s Andrew Cowen
HK Express deputy CEO Andrew Cowen has built a career on making LCCs viable
Young executives finding their way in the corporate world may see talk of creating a new niche and writing your own job description as naive, but that is precisely what Andrew Cowen has done. By following his instincts, seizing opportunities and capitalising on early experience, he has built a highly successful career as a specialist in getting low-cost carriers (LCCs) off the ground.
Now deputy chief executive of locally based operator HK Express – which took to the skies in October 2013 – he previously guided seven separate start-ups in Britain, the Middle East, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. He is involved in everything from concept development and securing finance to licence acquisition, route planning and operational launches.
By playing a significant role in establishing a viable business model with a potentially huge customer base, he has helped open up new markets and challenged preconceptions about the industry. “My starting point is always to establish the best and most talented team I can,” says Cowen, whose major task at present is providing strategic input and leadership as HK Express expands its network of 18 routes in Asia, while increasing passenger numbers.
“The secret to starting a successful business is seeing the right opportunity at the right time and having really good people. Without the best people, you will fluff it. It is about using their knowledge and experience and technical skills … and bonding all that into an effective team,” he says.
“Beyond that, my job here is then to set the core direction of the business, which is a matter of applying my own experience and, in a collaborative sense, finding ways to optimise our positioning and maximise returns. I have to be very clear about what goals we are aiming for, what each person’s part is, and how we are going to get there.”
One overarching objective, of course, is to set and maintain high standards for safety, service and on-time performance. There is also the sales and marketing aspect in getting travellers to see how the low-fare option creates all kinds of new possibilities for short getaways, family holidays that don’t break the bank, business people on a tight budget, or regular visits to a preferred resort or second home somewhere around the region. And there is all the thought and planning that has to go into simply running an efficient day-to day operation, both on the ground and in the air, in order to fill seats and improve fleet utilisation.
“But the biggest business challenge we face, by a scale of 10, is the slot situation at Chek Lap Kok,” Cowen says. “The airport is extremely congested and we are struggling to get all the slots we would like. One of the things underestimated in Asia as a whole is the emergence and growth rate of low-cost carriers. It tends to be a lot faster than people think and more than is built into forward plans. I am not criticising anybody, but from the aviation aspect, I believe a third runway in Hong Kong can’t come soon enough.”
Contributing to this type of high-level policy debate now comes with the territory. It involves different skills and a clear appreciation of alternative perspectives and priorities, but Cowen’s view is that answers can generally be found when innovation and common sense prevail.
A key element is bringing in talented people from outside the industry to inject fresh ideas. Cowen tries to let his team “get on with it”, only stepping in if they are missing something or veering off track. “I am very systematic about addressing such issues immediately,” he says. “I am very disciplined and insistent that HK Express does not let people down.”
Cowen’s family moved to England from South Africa when he was 11. He studied finance in London before joining British Airways (BA) as a graduate trainee in 1989 and taking classes to qualify as a chartered management accountant. When the chance came to manage BA’s financial affairs for its American business unit, he grabbed it with both hands. From London, he oversaw around 100 staff and came to understand the intricacies of the cost base and different markets.
This led to promotion to director of strategy for Go, BA’s fledgling LCC. Involvement in a management buyout and a sale to easyJet proved sound business decisions, and taught him skills and know-how that were soon in demand as new investors in the Middle East and Asia came calling, sensing the potential in the LCC business model.
When time allows, Cowen is an avid traveller – but not just to “collect” sights. “In Japan and places like Shenzhen, I like to wander around and ‘sniff out’ a neighbourhood, but in the next year I want to learn some Chinese and start to sail.”
PREPARING FOR TAKE-OFF
Andrew Cowen's five steps to profitability
Reaching critical mass “That shows shareholders we have got one major aspect of the business right, but it is important to keep going and invest for the future.”
Gate expectations “It is vital to find the solution to the slots issue, working with airports and the authorities to achieve steady business growth.”
Attracting top talent “A priority is building a high-performance, highly talented team, where people are ready to push themselves further than they thought possible in terms of personal development and new interests.”
Growing plans “In five years, we would like to be up to 40 or 50 aircraft and, if achievable, 80 or 90 destinations.”