Oliver Evans has spent nearly 40 years proving that linguistics and logistics are a good mix. Evans, chief cargo officer for Swiss International Airlines, nearly became a translator following his graduation from the University of Manchester in 1976.
“I had imagined I would be a linguist, which was my father’s profession,” Evans recalls. “Interpreting is what I studied at university, and I got to the stage of having attracted offers in that, when I asked myself ‘Why am I doing this?’ the best answer I could give myself was ‘It’s what my father wanted,’ and I decided that was not a good-enough answer for me.”
Evans, a native of Chaville, France, and fluent in five languages (English, French, German, Dutch and Italian), decided to take his skills in another direction. “I wanted to use my languages, and I wanted to travel the world and live in different parts of the world. The international transportation business, of course, was an ideal industry to enter to do that.”
The industry has benefited from Evan’s skills and leadership ever since. After launching his career by holding various management roles with Ocean Transport and Trading of Liverpool, he moved over to airfreight in 1987 with KLM Cargo. He joined Swiss International Airlines in 2002 and has developed a continuing success story. Evans, who is in his second year as chairman of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), has been a leading force in the industry’s recent focus on workforce development.
For his demonstration of leadership and guidance – not only at his own airline, but for the industry as a whole – Air Cargo World has selected Evans as its Executive of the Year for 2014.
Swiss World Cargo’s success
Evans says the growth of the Swiss WorldCargo operation over the past dozen years has been a great success story and a source of pride for his entire team.
He came to Switzerland at the end of 2002 in the early days of the new Swiss International Airlines as executive vice president, cargo, following the bankruptcy of Swissair. He soon discovered he had inherited an experienced team, which, as he describes it, “was already going about their business and running a satisfactory cargo operation.”
But Evans says a clear cargo strategy was missing, and developing one became his top priority. He didn’t want to duplicate cargo operations of the defunct Swissair, nor did he want to compete with the giants of the industry by creating a new freighter hub in a region already served by Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Luxembourg. The strategy of the new SWISS would be to zero in on and develop strategies to serve the key industrial sectors of Switzerland – pharmaceuticals, high-tech, precision instruments and banking.
“In Switzerland and worldwide, it’s been a strategy that has made perfect sense, and we have communicated it externally and internally ever since,” Evans says. “We have followed it through methodically and passionately. That is the essence of our success. Switzerland is an exceptional country and has a fantastic tradition of quality and care, which we leverage.”
Evans says parent airline SWISS has reached an interesting stage in its development as it has added capacity in recent years with bigger bellies. That trend will accelerate in 2016 as the carrier will receive its first six 777-300ERs. They will replace the leased A340s the company added in 2003 and 2004.
The Zurich-based carrier has regularly drawn industry accolades in recent years, including recognition by Air Cargo World’s Air Cargo Excellence Awards (ACE). Evans says Swiss WorldCargo also benchmarks its success with Cargo 2000 statistics and the airline’s financial results.
“We have extremely high load factors year-round and therefore are encouraged that our strategy is the right one for the market, but we want to go much further in terms of developing value-added services,” he says. “On the one hand, we are increasing capacity; on the other hand, we have ambition to work closer with freight forwarders who specialize in the industries we are targeting. Our focus will be on developing more customer intimacy.”
Mentoring and talent development
Evans has had several mentors who have encouraged him along his career. The first name he cites is his first boss at KLM Cargo, Jacques Ancher, who joined TIACA’s Hall of Fame in 2014. “He gave a great deal of freedom tohis team and devoted some of his time to coaching young executives like myself.”
Others mentioned include Peter Bouw, former KLM CEO and the first chairman of SWISS, and Christoph Franz, former CEO of SWISS and current chairman of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche.
There’s no doubt that Evans enjoys his leadership role in air cargo. He believes leadership means encouraging associates, nurturing their abilities and drawing out their energy. “I am convinced that most of us go through life tapping only into a fragment of the potential we have,” he says. “I consider leadership to be about freeing up that energy and tapping into those resources. That’s what I do in my job with my team, our customers and our suppliers. I try to motivate people to reach deeper into their own fantastic resources. That’s how I define my job.”
Evans has been a force behind the move to ensure air cargo has an ongoing supply of talent. He believes it is the most “urgent and important” task – a challenge not just for individual companies but for the entire industry.
“The reality is that technological development is taking place at a rapid pace,” He says. “That leads to disruption in all kinds of industries, with new companies coming up with totally different supply chains. So, the kind of people that you need to understand such change – to feel comfortable with it and accelerate that change – is a totally different type of person than we used to have.”
Evans believes air cargo has made great progress in this area, with such initiatives as IATA’s Future Air Cargo Executives (FACE) and TIACA’s Professional Development Program. He says he is excited that many industry leaders are now “talking the language” in workforce development.
“Is it enough? No, absolutely not. We need to redouble our efforts, and that’s what I am personally committed to doing.”
TIACA’s looming transition
TIACA is heading into a transition period, both with its leadership and its objectives. Several long-time board members are leaving, and Vice Chairman Enno Osinga, who would ordinarily ascend to the chairman’s role next May, is retiring. Evans says the leadership change is just part of the process that happens every other year.
“We now have a board that is very committed and very active, participating in regular calls, far beyond what we had in the past,” he said. “It’s also highly representative of the entire spectrum of the industry. For me, the transition is not the organizational change, as we will have no difficulty nominating the successors and welcoming new board members. What is a challenge is adapting ourselves to remain relevant and retain the ability to lead the industry going forward.”
Evans acknowledges that, in the past, TIACA was essentially an event organizer, with the biennial Air Cargo Forum as its primary focus. That gradually changed to more broader industry involvement, with active engagement with the World Customs Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), who he says are now much more aware of the cargo industry.
A financial challenge looms, as TIACA can no longer rely so much on income from the ACF. “The industry is changing and people tend to spend less on exhibitions,” Evans says. “Part of the industry has consolidated into airline alliances and occupy one booth at an exhibition rather than individual airline booths. We are looking to significantly increase the number of members by delivering value to our members and the wider industry. I am convinced we can do that. We are already doing that, and we can do it even more in the future. I foresee a bright future for TIACA for the essential reason we are the association open to every stakeholder group in the industry.”
Evans believes the ACF planned for Paris in 2016 will be far more successful than the event held in Seoul in October. He says that, while he is pleased with the attendance in Seoul and the quality of the event’s sessions, the number of exhibitors was smaller than planned, which negatively affected revenue.
“Although Seoul was an attractive location and Korea is an exciting country and a major hub of airfreight, it is in the far northeast of Asia and is not necessarily the easiest place to access for people who wish to participate in an exhibition. Paris will be different, with France located at the heart of Europe. We are preparing now with all of our resources to make sure that it is a successful event.”
Evans acknowledges that some organizational changes in the period between the 2012 ACF and the Seoul event, which resulted in the hiring of current Secretary General Doug Brittin in August 2013, distracted TIACA’s leadership and took its attention away from planning the Seoul ACF. He also says that, although TIACA received good support from Korean authorities, a leadership change at Incheon International Airport, the main sponsor for the event, also took attention away from ACF planning.
Cargo growth and the 48-hour proposal
Evans is optimistic that air cargo will maintain the momentum that has seen progress at a relatively steady pace in 2014. He cites an improving global economy and new technological developments that are creating new companies and new business, all of which he believes will sustain a growing market for airfreight.
“Factories need to be kept going through global trade, therefore the outlook is bright,” he says. “It’s still been a year of tremendous challenge with gross overcapacity. Even if there is growth in volume, there is not necessarily growth in terms of profitability and some companies are having to scale down.”
These trends will continue in 2015 and beyond, Evans believes. Business models will continue to be strained. More companies will specialize on specific roles in the market.
Ever since former IATA Head of Cargo Des Vertannes issued his parting challenge of trimming 48 hours from airfreight transit time at the World Cargo Symposium in Los Angeles last March, there has been an ongoing, vigorous debate on the proposal. Evans believes the ensuing discussion has been good for the industry and that it is producing new ideas.
“Of course, it is possible to reduce transit time significantly,” he says. “Is that what the customer always wants? No. Certain customers are happy enough with an air supply chain lasting six days, including stops for consolidation. On the other hand, with cargo delivered straight to the airport, consolidated at the airport and uplifted, absolutely times can be shortened. There is a lot of creativity going on, and this will lead to a multiplication of options for customers who will be able to choose a multiplication of options.”
There’s more to life than work
Evans’ duties with Swiss WorldCargo and TIACA keep him busy and constantly traveling, leaving scant time for hobbies and relaxation. He says it’s hard to maintain a work-life balance, but he focuses his free time on his family.
“I am a husband and proud father of two children, ages 29 and 26,” he says.
“I enjoy the partnership of my wife, a beautiful lady from Ireland who I met in the States. I’m an avid reader and I also row on the lake here, sometimes twice a week and certainly on the weekends. I also enjoy hiking, and Switzerland is an exceptional country for that."
CV At A Glance
1978-1986 Managerial positions in UK, Italy and USA, Ocean Transport & Trading of Liverpool
1986-1987 Manager Corporate Strategic Development, UK, Ocean Transport & Trading of Liverpool
1987-1990 Manager Sales & Marketing UK & Ireland, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM Cargo)
1990-1995 Deputy Vice President Middle East, Asia & Australia, Singapore KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM Cargo)
1995-1997 Director Sales Central & Eastern Europe, Germany KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM Cargo)
1997-1999 Director Sales & Marketing Worldwide, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM Cargo)
1999-2001 VP Strategy & Alliances, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM Cargo)
2001-2002 VP Global Sales Europe, Middle East & Africa BAX Global
2002-2003 EVP Cargo Swiss International Air Lines Ltd.
2004-2005 Chief Sales & Marketing Officer Swiss International Air Lines Ltd.
2005+ Chief Cargo Officer Swiss International Air Lines Ltd.