MH370: DAY 23

MAS chief no stranger to tough challenges

MALAYSIA Airlines (MAS) chief executive officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya has one of the world's most difficult jobs right now.

Since the disappearance of Flight MH370 carrying 239 passengers and crew on March8, he has been juggling back-to-back briefings with Malaysian officials, media scrutiny and a backlash from the anguished relatives of passengers.

On top of all that, Mr Ahmad, 59, still has a company to run. Even before the devastating impact of the MH370 mystery, MAS was bleeding money. Last year, it lost RM1.17 billion (S$450 million) amid high operating costs and lower revenue from airfares.

Mr Ahmad is known as a straight-talking chief executive, but the stress of the last three weeks has seen him dodging questions and avoiding eye contact with journalists outside the daily press briefings on MH370.

When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that it had been concluded from satellite data that Beijing-bound MH370 "ended" its journey in the Indian Ocean south-west of Perth, Mr Ahmad, who rarely shows emotions publicly, was caught on camera shedding tears.

But Mr Ahmad, better known as "AJ", is no stranger to hardship. A small, lean man, he took part in four Ironman triathlon races between 2003 and 2009, in which competitors swim, cycle and run for more than 200km. In 2009, he finished the race in 14 hours and 22 minutes. Winners usually finish the race in under 10 hours.

Mr Ahmad is an electrical and electronic engineering graduate from the University of Nottingham in Britain.

He is also an old hand at running companies, having spent 20 years in top posts in various sectors, including at biofuel producer Premium Renewable Energy (Malaysia).

A hands-on manager at all the companies he ran, Mr Ahmad's accolades include being the first to adopt the Atex publishing software for the New Straits Times when he was production manager in the 1980s. The system is still used by major Malaysian media companies.

As managing director of Malakoff, he turned the sleepy company into Malaysia's largest independent power producer. But the MH370 crisis is Mr Ahmad's biggest test yet.

"No amount of experience can fully prepare him for this," Mr Lim Chee Sing, research head of RHB Research Institute, told The Straits Times.

MAS, a state-owned carrier, has a chequered history of slipping in and out of the red, mainly because its large staff are less productive than those of other airlines, as well as fluctuating fuel costs and rising competition from Middle East carriers such as Qatar Airways and low-cost airlines such as AirAsia.

To try to turn things around at MAS, Khazanah Nasional, Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund and the controlling shareholder of MAS, hand-picked Mr Ahmad in 2011 to lead the company at a tumultuous period. He set out to return MAS to profitability by this year by focusing on filling seats and increasing staff productivity. Last October, his contract was renewed for another three years.

People who know him from when he was Malakoff managing director said he had been chosen for his ability to make tough decisions.

He is also known to be unafraid to give hard assessments of a company's operations, and is said to have disagreed with his then boss, tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, over plans to privatise Malakoff in 2007. People close to Mr Ahmad said he was worried the company's transparency post-privatisation would be jeopardised. Mr Ahmad left in 2010.

Last year, he fought MAS employees' unions that picketed him for adjusting salaries and making them work longer hours. Analysts said he also overdid fare-dumping in a bid to win back market share from MAS' rivals, resulting in lower revenue last year.

"AJ calls a spade a spade," an aviation analyst with a bank-backed research company who did not want to be named told The Straits Times. "You can expect him to be forthright with you, even with the toughest questions."

Outside of work, Mr Ahmad, who is married, is a reserved man and guards his private life jealously. A disciplined athlete, he goes for morning runs daily before heading to work. He is also a licensed pilot and flies a Cessna - a small aircraft - in his spare time.

Analysts said it is unclear just how much damage the MH370 crisis is doing to MAS' operations, but the airline is likely to suffer a significant impact as it braces itself for compensation claims, impending lawsuits and a dent in its reputation, with some passengers now steering clear of MAS.

With no end to the ordeal in sight, the analysts said MAS' road to recovery has derailed, and it could be in need of a government bailout - a contentious point as it involves taxpayers' money.

All these unprecedented challenges are proving onerous for Mr Ahmad. At the daily press conferences, the MAS chief appears more subdued than Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Department of Civil Aviation head Azharuddin Abdul Rahman.

At times, he appears frustrated when defending MAS against allegations that it has lacked sensitivity in dealing with the families of the missing passengers.

Over the weeks, the media pressure for his head to roll has intensified. A weary-looking Mr Ahmad, however, gives an evasive response. "That is a personal decision (which will be taken) later," he told the BBC in an interview last Thursday. "We have things to do now."

People who know him say Mr Ahmad is not a quitter.

"He is MAS' only hope now, and he knows it," a friend of Mr Ahmad who did not want to be named told The Straits Times. "He will not back down."

yyennie@sph.com.sg