CATHAY PACIFIC: THE SKY IS THE LIMIT FOR PHILIP CHEN
MANILA, OCTOBER 25, 2006 (STAR) PEOPLE By Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The jet-setting CEO of Cathay Pacific Airways actually first saw the world beyond Hong Kong from the portholes of a cargo ship. Then 20 years old, he wasn’t a preferred passenger, just someone who did odd jobs to earn mileage on board. Perhaps, the fates knew then that Philip Chen would someday conquer foreign lands on a Boeing or an Airbus, and an unglamorous cargo ship was an unforgettable start for the future world traveller.
Nevertheless, it was a voyage of discovery and excitement – with the ship docking in such faraway ports as Iloilo City in the Philippines, Kaoishung in Taiwan, Papua New Guinea and Australia.
Before that, he "had never even seen a passport," Chen, now 50, recalls.
We are at the coffee shop of the Hotel Philippine Plaza, and the tall and dignified airline man is about to call on President Arroyo at Malacañang in a few hours and then catch a flight back to Hong Kong shortly after. He flew the day before into Manila, the only city outside Hong Kong where he was special guest at ceremonies marking the airline’s 60th anniversary. (The name "Cathay Pacific" was coined in the Tropicana Bar of the Manila Hotel by its founder 60 years ago; and the Philippines is the airline’s biggest market in Southeast Asia.)
The breathtaking schedule seems to agree with this horseracing enthusiast, and I ask him if travel has always had a special allure to him – after all, he joined Cathay Pacific as a management trainee in 1977, and never disembarked from the airline business since then.
He smiles: "When I joined university in Hong Kong, that was 1974, I had never had a passport, never travelled overseas, never been on an aircraft. When I joined the university, I didn’t even know what a passport looked like. In the mid-’50s, I had not been on a plane.
"I didn’t come from a very rich family," continues Chen, who despite the heights his career has taken, drives a Honda and lives in an apartment in Hong Kong. "My father was long retired when I was born and I was really, really keen to see the world and so I actually got through some connections, gone to a cargo ship for my first year in the university. And the ship is a bulk carrier that sailed to Manila, Iloilo, Davao, Papua New Guinea, Australia, back to Manila, Taipei, Kaoishung and Hong Kong."
After graduation, Chen applied and was accepted at Cathay, where he rose to deputy managing director in April 1997 and chief operating officer in July 1998. He was the chief executive of Hong Kong Dragon Airlines from 1994 to 1997. Before his appointment at Dragon, he was regional general manager Southeast Asia of Cathay Pacific and he was based in Singapore. From 1989 to 1992, he was based for almost three years in Beijing as the chief representative and general manager of Swire China. A series of responsibilities that surely beat helping out in a cargo ship!
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Chen took over as Cathay COO shortly after the historic handover of the former Crown colony to China. Many feared for the future of Hong Kong after it reverted to Chinese rule, especially jittery businessmen and cautious tourists – just the sort of people who would hop on a plane, or get out of it.
After the initial jitters, it was back to business for Hong Kong, and Cathay Pacific road out this period of uncertainty as well. In fact Cathay flew through it out quite well, ending up with double the number of aircraft it had when the handover took place!
"And I don’t know if I could give you any argument or narrative, but we have to look at the fact that we had 59 aircraft on the day of the handover which was in July 1997. Today, Cathay Pacific proper has 100. And if you add Dragonair, you have 143 aircraft. And that was only acquired completely totally just last week. So if you think of 59 aircraft going to 140-something now and going to 180 in four years’ time – that speaks for itself."
Under his watch, Chen charted Cathay Pacific’s growth by making it take off alongside its home city, Hong Kong. "The theory is very simple. And that is, how do you make Hong Kong a city really comparable to New York and London? How do you make Hong Kong a world city? It’s a great city but how do you make it one of the greatest cities on earth? So there were ideas such as you change your immigration policies, your population policies, your education policies, the financial policies. My point about it and I do not disagree with many of the things said, but one key observation if you look at history is that all the greatest cities on earth – if you talk about Venice many years ago, if you talk about Rome 2000 years ago – all the greatest cities in human history there’s only one common theme. And they’re all transport centers.
"The great cities today are London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong. If you look at that, if you want to be a great city, you’ve got to be a transport center. And because today’s transport is aviation, you’ve got to be an aviation hub. There’s no question about it."
"And so if you think about it," adds Chen, who has written several insightful travel books for the traveler in search of more than just tourist spots, "Cathay has more offices around the world than the entire Hong Kong Trade Development Council, Hong Kong Tourism Board put together. And I’m sure the same for Philippine Airlines."
In fact, says Chen – top of mind – the airline is the company most associated with any country.
"You really have to be a really big aviation hub to be a good city. And one of the key components of that is a very strong home carrier and of course, a very good (airport) facility."
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The handover wasn’t the only rough patch the airline, now the world’s 10th most profitable, had to ride out. There was the Asian financial crisis, also in 1997, the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the fuel crisis in 2005 and 2006.
The SARS crisis nearly clipped Cathay’s wings. At the time, they had flights when the crew outnumbered the passengers. Chen recalls they even had a flight when the only passenger backed out at the last minute!
But good management and the loyalty of its staff saw the airline through, enabling it to take off again within the very same year the SARS crisis began.
"You’re always up against some major challenges," says Chen. "You have to come through it and overcome these challenges and achieve the objectives. It’s not been easy but if you look back at what we have achieved and look back at what we have done, I think it’s impressive."
After all, aside from being the world’s 10th most profitable airline, Cathay Pacific is the sixth largest airline in terms of stock market value. It boasts 1,250 weekly departures to 95 destinations worldwide. It has a staff of 16,200, including Filipinos.
But success to Chen, who also sits in Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, is not all about size.
"Size is not a measurement of success because if you think of American Airlines, one of the US carriers, it has over 900 aircraft. If you’re losing money, that does not mean anything to me. What is important I think is we also adhere to our mission that we want to be the most admired airline."
To those who express admiration for what he has done while on the airline’s controls, Chen just smiles, and says: "There is a saying in Cantonese that goes something like this: It’s the leadership of my bosses, the competence and excellence of my colleagues and the support and encouragement of our customers. It has nothing to do with me."
It’s been a long way from the musty cabins of a cargo ship to the Business Class section of a Cathay Pacific jumbo jet, but CEO Philip Chen (who insists on flying "Economy" on short flights) would probably only smile and say, "It has nothing to do with me."
And that humility in the face of extraordinary accomplishments, to many, is truly the mark of someone who has touched the sky.
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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