interviewBy Shaka Momodu
Jide Onalajai is the Chief Executive Officer of Bridgewater Academy, a skills acquisition and career development centre with specialty in offering aviation training and general bespoke training solutions to organizations. With a primary focus on aviation training solutions, Onalaja who has over a decade's experience in aviation, is also co-founder of Aviation Logistics and Management limited (ALML), the company credited with sealing the deal that brought Virgin Atlantic to Nigeria. He spoke with Shaka Momodu
Some bit about your background and what you do?
I was born into the family of Honorable Justice M.O. Onalaja and the late Chief Mrs. Folashade Onalaja in Ibadan, Oyo State. I hold a bachelors degree in architecture from the Temple University, Philadelphia, in the USA. I worked as an architect in America for a couple of years before returning home. On getting back to Nigeria, I worked briefly for an architectural firm, then started my own business in partnership with my brother. Our business comprised architecture/construction, importation and supply of raw materials to several multinationals and general businesses until I co-founded Aviation Logistics and Management Ltd (ALML). This marked the beginning of my involvement in the aviation business. Whilst managing ALML group as chief operating officer, I was responsible for the day to day management of Virgin Atlantic Airways including staff recruitment across the group and business development all through our chain of businesses, which includes a logistics company (with a fleet of over 70 vehicles, a business class lounge at the MMIA, aviation security company and staff outsourcing with total staff strength of over 700 people at its peak.
How did the idea of establishing an aviation academy come about?
An Albert Einstein quote best summarizes the problem in the aviation sector and most businesses in Nigeria: "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school." I realized early in my journey into aviation that there was indeed a dearth in skills, both soft skills relevant to a sector like aviation and technical know how. Both in my opinion were as a result of a near lull in the sector over the years. It was disconcerting to see that even the most basic service skills were absent. What concerned me though, was that Nigerians were by nature warm and receptive. So I drew comfort that it was only an education problem - not a natural one. Bridgewater came about by a combination of these thinking; largely to help people acquire the skills they require to work in this sector as well help them develop a career in this sector. Bridgewater aims at demand for flexible, highly skilled workers with both the necessary skills and attitude to work.
As an architect one would have thought you would occupy yourself with designs of buildings and infrastructures, but here you are running a skills acquisition academy; how did you get into all this and more importantly what was the motivation?
Many people go to school and study various things but most of us don't really know what we really want. For me I really liked architecture and I still have a passion for it. I am by nature a restless person, so I knew much as I loved architecture, that I needed to be doing more. What that was, I didn't quite know. In my quest to find my comfort zone, I was involved in various kinds of businesses. In my pursuit then I had worked on a power project with Chief John Adebanjo who thereafter brought Virgin Atlantic to Nigeria. That was my entry into the aviation sector and I have enjoyed it from then on. That was 12 years ago.
How challenging was it setting up Bridgewater Academy?
The greatest challenge was to find the team that one will invest in to make this dream a reality. The greatest assets in any school are the instructors. Our plan was to take the team to the United Kingdom for training. As you can imagine taking a few people away for a month each is not a joke in the current economic climate. But now I can say we invested in the right team and by God's grace, we are overcoming most of the teething problems.
What has been the response from the aviation sector in particular and organizations in general?
The response has been very positive. We offer an internship partnership with some travel agencies and the numbers are growing. Our top students are placed in an internship pool and are sent to our partner agencies, these students often get employed by these agencies. We aren't the first school of its kind, but we set out to do things differently and hopefully better. When we were starting, we did extensive research into who can develop our own courses and after interviewing several companies we choose an outfit, one of UK largest travel industry trainers. At our opening in June 2012 we didn't have the major industry partnerships; however today we have of one of the leading partnerships in the aviation - IATA and Amadeus. We are now a certified Amadeus training centre and also an IATA ATC (Authorized Training Centre). We also offer services outside the aviation sector; specifically, customized service training for companies that have customer facing staff in both public and private sectors.
You co-founded Aviation Logistics and Management Company that brought Virgin Atlantic to Nigeria; how was that put together?
I co-founded Aviation Logistics and Management Ltd with a gentleman called Chief John Adebanjo. John is a personal friend of Sir Richard Branson. It was he who brought Virgin Atlantic to Nigeria and out of this relationship we developed several businesses which is now the ALML Group. The ALML Group is made up of Aviation Logistics and Management Ltd, ALML Transport and Logistics Ltd, ALML Security Ltd, ALML Travels and Tours Ltd, ALML Travel Management Ltd and Oasis Executive Lounge at the MMIA. It had its own challenges 12 years ago but when God is on your side you overcome all the challenges. Richard Branson loves and believes in Nigeria.
What is the status of your relationship with Virgin Atlantic today?
The relationship is still very good.
We have so many aviation training centres; what makes Bridgewater different?
What makes Bridgewater unique is its dynamic team of UK trained facilitators, its state of the art technology driven training facilities as well as its partnerships with top leading and globally recognized partners such as IATA (International Aviation Transport Association) with head office in Geneva Switzerland, Training for Travel (One of United Kingdom's based leading Travel Industry trainers), City and Guilds of the United Kingdom, Amadeus of France, ABTA (UK-based Travel Association), Edexel (one of the United Kingdom's Educational bodies) and many others.
As someone who has operated in the aviation sector, you sure have some experience about the challenges in the sector. Why do you think airlines fail, while several others are on the brink of failing?
The aviation sector is one of the most delicate and sophisticated industries in the world. The aircraft today are so advanced and time has shown us that mistakes in the industry are very costly. So running such a delicate business requires the right expertise and use of technology. I will give a few reasons not in any particular order why I think many airlines fail. One, up until recently, most local airlines didn't have a revenue management system which is a programme that makes the airline see how much thay have to sell each seat and the various combinations to make a profit. That is why you will see in a cabin for example economy class seats are sold at different prices in various combinations in the same cabin. From my own exposure to this business, it is almost impossible to make a profit without such a system in place and most don't have it. Two, cost of funds in Nigeria are very high, more so in a business that has very high overheads (fuel, spares, etc..) majority of which are in dollars and very low profit margins.
Three, the need for financial discipline (easy to say, hard to practice) by owners of such airlines. As an airline owner you see your bank balance and you believe that you can start spending. You do have to bear in mind however that as much as 80 percent of that money is running cost, so the minute you divert money to buy a Mercedes 'S' class the problem has started.
Four, investment in the right people with the right expertise. I must admit there has been considerable improvement in this area in this past couple of years because of the new generation airlines like Arik etc. And as long as the overheads outweigh the income there will be no changes in the industry.
How has regulation or lack of it affected the sector?
The industry has to be regulated because it is a very sophisticated business and as I said earlier mistakes can be very costly. In my own opinion, the NCAA and ministry of aviation are doing very well.