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Maximus CEO delivers goods to the desperate

Earlier this year, Maximus Air CEO Fat’hi Hilal Buhazza told us about his philosophy of doing good while making money. He tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat how this is helping people in distress in Pakistan and beyond.

Sisters Miriam and Sidra, both in their teens, still shudder when recalling the incident that occurred in 2005 when they lost everything – their house, belongings, friends, many relatives and very nearly their lives – when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook their neighbourhood in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“We are lucky we were not among the more than 75,000 who were killed,’’ says Sidra, adding that she later learnt from news reports that millions like them were rendered homeless.

“I was in school when the classroom suddenly started shaking and the building collapsed. I was caught under the rubble. It was a watchman who saved me and many of the girls from my school,” she says.

The family rebuilt their lives and house with the help of the Red Crescent. But a large tent that stands outside their house is a stark reminder of where the family lived for many months following the earthquake. “The aid agencies provided us with the tent that helped us survive through that winter,” says their father Nassem, 50. Even now, the family seeks refuge in the tent when they feel tremors.

The tents and other supplies that helped them and other such families were part of a UAE initiative to rush aid to victims.

Abu Dhabi-based Fat’hi Hilal Buhazza, president and CEO of Maximus Air cargo transport company (who Friday first featured in the July 13 issue this year), recalls being asked by the Red Crescent to help fly in aid to Muzaffarabad. “We had just launched Maximus Air – in July 2005 – when we were asked to transport aid to earthquake victims,” the 48-year-old says. “An air bridge was established between Abu Dhabi and Islamabad airport. Mobile military hospitals were deployed and tents, food, personnel, you name it, were airlifted. The ten-day mission was particularly difficult because of the mountainous terrain where the relief supplies had to be brought to, but we did all that we could.”

After the operations concluded, Fat’hi reviewed the company’s operations. “I found the figures to be very good; thanks to the hard work of the team we made a lot of money as we were into charter operations,” he says. “I was very pleased, especially when my bosses congratulated me for making such a huge difference in revenue after just two months with the company.”

But later he had began to question the matter. “I wondered what kind of profit is this, if I make it out of people’s misery? I thought it shouldn’t be like this.”

In late 2005 he decided to set up a charity called Care By Air: “The UAE is known for its humanitarian initiatives so we decided to do all humanitarian flights on Maximus planes on a cost basis,” he says.

Undertaking flights even on cost basis is good for business, according to Fat’hi. “It’s sustainable and, in fact, for airlines such as Maximus, one of the key performance indicators (KPIs) is their cost per hour. So, the more hours you fly, the less it will cost per hour.

“In 2008 we signed an agreement with the UAE Red Crescent to be their air cargo partner committing to operate flights at cost,” says Fat’hi. As his company’s involvement increased, he saw that there was a role for the air cargo industry to provide support to humanitarian agencies transporting relief aid when required.

“That relationship soon became more than just one of providing an aircraft for charter,” he says. “We basically act like their aerial operation centre – we give them advice on ways to operate more efficiently. Soon I knew there definitely was a role for us and it was not just a charity role; it’s also good for my business.”

During the floods in Pakistan in 2010 Fat’hi and his Maximus Air embarked on another charity initiative. “We operated a lot of flights for the Red Crescent, and we decided that Maximus would donate three free flights to take supplies from Abu Dhabi to Karachi,” says Fat’hi. “That cost us around Dh1 million. If our annual turnover was around Dh150 million, what is Dh1 million? That’s when we decided that during such crises we would get Care By Air’s partners to donate some flights to the cause. It’s like a drop in the ocean for the company. But the difference it makes to people at the other end is tremendous… Medicines, tents, supplies all went on them, and without them a lot of people could have lost their lives.
I felt very happy to have helped them!’’

Care By Air has already helped in getting aid to the needy in several instances. “We recently did a project for the Ministry of Health and 27 tonnes of vaccines were sent to Nepal,” says Fat’hi. “If transported commercially that load would have cost the ministry $150,000 (Dh550,500). Etihad, which flies daily to Nepal, helped transport the load across eight flights. The medicines were stored in bulk at Dubai World Central where Aramex repackaged them into smaller packs to store on the aircraft and transported them to Abu Dhabi airport. We moved the entire consignment for just $6,500! Can you believe that? And still, Etihad made a profit!”

For Fat’hi, it was a big lesson. “The theory – that you could help society as well as your business – had been put into practice,” he says. “Now, we are optimistic we can make this happen more often.”

Maximus Air also sent flights to Haiti after the earthquake, to Lebanon after the war, and was the first humanitarian aircraft to land in Beirut airport after it reopened. “We’ve also sent aid to Vietnam and Bolivia, among other countries,” he says.

A win-win situation

The idea of getting the organisation to give something back to society came from Fat’hi’s experience at an executive training programme in the famous Insead business school in France he’d attended earlier in his career.

“There, an Indian professor of strategy and management, Subramanian Rangan, made a presentation about strategy where he said every commercial organisation has a goal – to have a sustainable income and sustainable profit; and a role – to assure or provide benefits and better pricing to society. If the organisation plays its role, society will help the organisation to achieve its goal – to help improve people’s lives by providing benefits and a better quality of life. That really set me thinking. I liked the idea of a win-win situation where you help society and make money at the same time.”

Food for thought

Meanwhile, Fat’hi and his team came across an alarming fact; 80 per cent of the United Nations’ humanitarian budget was spent on logistics. “So, out of $80 billion about $64 billion was spent on just getting the supplies to wherever they were needed,” he says. “And because it is a limited budget the money that’s spent on logistics is taken from money that could well have been spent on buying supplies or transporting medical staff. As a representative of the air cargo industry, I felt it was too much. Way too much.”

Fat’hi also found that “after a disaster the charges for chartering an aircraft magically go up by 500 to 600 per cent. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.” He also came across another interesting statistic from the International Air Transport Association – 30 per cent of the cargo space of every aircraft that flies is not used. In other words that space goes empty.

This got Fat’hi thinking. “‘How about filling up the empty space with cargo at cost rates?’

I wondered. It’d be good for the airline too as it would have otherwise gone without a load and for the humanitarian organisations it would mean a reduction in costs.”

Fat’hi studied the subject at length and found ways of reducing costs for the aid agencies. “The factors that contribute to the cost of the flight include the airport with its fees, and the parking and handling at both ends,” he says. “We found that if the Abu Dhabi Airport Company (ADAC), for example, agreed to handle the cargo at cost rates, it would work out even better for the humanitarian agencies.’’ With this plan in mind, he approached ADAC, “however they were more generous. They agreed to do it for free! For the aid agencies it was a huge saving – they were able to reduce their overall cost by 25 to 35 per cent.

“We are also planning to approach fuel companies to see if they can give us just two to three cents off a gallon. Then we can make a massive saving, which will go towards making a massive change is some people’s lives.’’

Care By Air, in essence, looks at all aspects of transportation costs of emergency and humanitarian aid. It also unites the aviation sector to work towards a noble goal. “What we are doing is using an existing network to transport humanitarian aid. It is also good for the environment because we do not have to have an additional aircraft to transport aid. So we are basically also improving the efficiency of the system.”

However, Fathi realises there are challenges. “It requires a lot of coordination, and we know people are always resistent to change,” he says. As a first step, he got Care By Air registered as a non-profit organisation earlier this year in Abu Dhabi. “We have very dedicated partners without whom the idea would not have taken off,” says Fat’hi. “The Chairman of Red Crescent Authority has supported us wholeheartedly, and we couldn’t have done this without his help. The model had to have execution partners and Etihad Airways took up a major role. They are one of the partners of Care By Air, as are the ADAC,” says Fat’hi. “Aramex joined us in 2010. They play a major role in taking care of the cargo from the stores, packing and weighing them and getting them ready for flight, and having them delivered at the point of transport, and also delivering from the airport…

“The idea is that all the airports and airlines in the UAE will join this initiative and our country will be an example for developing, practising and sustaining this model,” he says. “We want to show that the UAE does not only give money, it can also come up with great ideas to change the world.”

Gulf News / Friday


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