Calin Rovinescu served as the president and chief executive officer of Air Canada from April 2009 to February 2021. He is regarded as one of the best CEO that Canada has known, Air Canada stock rising more than 5,000% during his tenure (pre-COVID).
Rovinescu, born in Bucharest in 1955, came to Montreal by boat when he was six years old. His father, Ionel, 38 at the time, was a urologist and surgeon seeking to escape antisemitism and repression. His mother, Adriana, was a teacher, with two master’s degrees. The family came with $200 and two suitcases and none of them spoke French or English.
Rovinescu received his law degrees at the University of Ottawa and the Université de Montréal, and joined the firm of Stikeman Elliott, becoming a managing partner and corporate law specialist.
Rovinescu has a long history with Air Canada, one that stretches back to the mid-1980s, where he acted as lead external counsel on the 1988 privatization and then helped to take down the hostile takeover bid from Onex Corp. in 1999.
He then joined Air Canada in 2000 as executive vice-president corporate development and strategy. In 2003, he was chosen as the executive to lead the restructuring of the company after it declared bankruptcy. He left in 2004 when a financing deal with investors fell apart, writing that "the restructuring talks were like playing full-contact, multidimensional chess in a fishbowl.”
Five years later, in 2009, the board of directors offered him the top job. At the time, the airline was facing serious labour discord, soaring fuel costs and a $4-billion pension deficit, an array of uncertainty that plunged the airline’s shares into the realm of penny stock.
His strategic plan, which he carried during his whole tenure, was to focus on reducing the cost structure, continue international expansion and change the culture to be more nimble and entrepreneurial.
1. On his first days as CEO: (1) do not be shy in your actions when all is at its bleakest; and (2) play to your strengths. Rovinescu first concentrated on emphasizing the unique selling points of Air Canada, such as its dedicated and diverse work force, strategic placement in many markets, and nimble management staff, and began to make changes that resulted in solid improvements.
2. On the ingredients necessary to effect fundamental change: 1) have your back against the wall: "When your back is against the wall, that’s when we see the greatest creativity, the greatest strengths, and the greatest commitment from the people that need to participate in the transformation."
2) have a clear vision: “Have a clear vision for the future, and be capable of explaining it in bite-size pieces. When you have a big organization, everybody looks at it from their particular corner of the universe. And yet,” he says, “you have to be capable of explaining it to all 30,000 people in the company. We had a fairly concrete plan for what the future looked like, and then we had a very clear communication strategy to ensure that all stakeholders had the right information.”
3. On the importance of communication: there’s no substitute for consistent, transparent and repetitive communication to your various stakeholders. We’ve changed many, many, many dynamics of our business and we had to do it in real time and we couldn’t wait for one chapter to be completed before getting onto the next.
4. On culture change as a continuous process: “Culture change is a continuous process. So, it’s not as if we’re going to declare victory after one year, two years, five years, or 10 years, frankly. It’s a continuous process if you want a dynamic culture,” he says. “And whatever it is that we have achieved today, sitting here in 2018, may not be adequate if we were sitting here in 2020. And so, the culture needs to continue to evolve. It needs to be living, breathing and dynamic, and I don’t expect to spike the ball in victory anytime soon.”
5. On his definition of leadership: “Leadership is about being able to get people to move in the same direction that the organization wants to move in, and avoid silos. I think that anyone can be a strong leader, whether it’s the top seat, or virtually anywhere else in the organization, in any department or group.”
6. On what makes a good leader: “I’d say the first tenet of leadership is transparency. And the second is being able to communicate well. If you cannot be transparent or communicate well, chances are you will not be successful. Even if you have the most innovative ideas and plans in mind.”
7. On being an effective executive: “I prefer to look at things over a long cycle, or a series of cycles,” Rovinescu said in an interview. “We’ve made significant strides against some long odds … but we have to keep our eye on the ball.”
"For dealing with the moment you need a microscope to drill down into the details but for dealing with the long-term strategy you need a telescope. Together, these tools guide you toward your vision. I wouldn’t say you need legal skills but this is a multi-faceted industry, highly cyclical, highly volatile. And it’s true that labor negotiations, antitrust hearings, and government discussions are all components of the industry but ultimately this is not about one person but about the team and the skillset the entire team can bring."
8. On the power of partnership: "there should never be a winner and loser in relationships that are meant to exist long-term. Instead, the term he emphasizes is “fair”.
We have a competitive bidding process for our work throughout the supply chain. Our expectation is that all parties make a fair return, these agreements should be win–win for both sides, as opposed to win–lose for somebody.
When it works, everyone benefits from the results. Partners have made us better, especially when I go back to 2009 when Air Canada was in a very difficult financial position. We counted on our partners to play ball with us. And the partners that did, benefited long-term with us over the decade."
9. On dealing with adversity: "there’s a line from a poem that somebody, my sister, in fact, gave me on my high school graduation and it’s stuck with me: Out of adversity comes strength. You have that notion that the greater the adversity, the greater that people’s personalities are going to come out, and you don’t have to compromise your values and your principles as you’re actually going through that level of adversity"
10. On thinking like an immigrant: "Rovinescu reveals a mantra he borrowed from That Used To Be Us, a book co-authored by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which suggests thinking like an immigrant can be crucial to success. Why think like an immigrant? Because an immigrant is hopeful and optimistic but he is fundamentally insecure. He knows what he wants to achieve but he never takes anything for granted. It’s a pretty good mindset for a competitive business like an airline.”
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