Malaysia Airlines’ CEO Explains Why He Quit

Filed Under: Malaysia

Yesterday it was announced that Malaysia Airlines’ CEO would be stepping down from his position at the company, and moving back to Ireland to become the COO of Ryanair. His decision seemed to come as a surprise to Malaysia Airlines, as the announcement was actually made by Ryanair on Twitter, welcoming Bellew back to the company.

That’s quite a downgrade in terms of job title, and beyond that it’s interesting that he’d quit only a bit over a year after taking the job as CEO of the airline. The previous CEO also quit within about a year, which sure makes it seem like it might have more to do with the company as such than the people they hire.

Well, The Star has a personal statement from Bellew explaining why he quit, which I figured was worth sharing:

“This is a personal response and not on behalf of Malaysia Airlines corporately.  I hope to answer some questions I was asked overnight.

Malaysia Airlines is special.  Not just an airline but one of the earliest symbols of the vibrancy of this amazing country.   People who have never flown in their life love it.

Most of the country hopes it will thrive and be the Pride of the Nation again.  It is a tough job to fix it.

Success is just within our grasp.  Just another 4%-5% in revenue monthly and it should move to profits.

Not always easy to gain but in the second quarter revenue increased 7%.

The product is improving visibly: new wide-body planes, new lounges, new loyalty program, new website and better operations in Kuala Lumpur.

Still some work needed on the food!  Lots done – lots more to do.

Please don’t change the brand!  Much work has been done globally through the media and travel agents to rebuild our heritage.

People love what Malaysia Airlines stands for.   The brand is now revived from China to the UK and down to Australia.  That work must continue and will yield the 5%+ revenue growth.

There have been news reports about Khazanah. Let me be clear. Khazanah is a Malaysian investment company linked to the Government.   They have been incredibly supportive to me personally and corporately.

I tried to be transparent on a daily basis, included them in most significant meetings and dragged their staff to work for us!  It has worked well.  There has been no interference.

Although possibly I drove Khazanah mad with my constant questions and wish for consensus.  I cannot thank them enough for accelerating our transformation. Tan Sri Azman could not have been more supportive.  Terima kasih Khazanah.

People always ask me how do I cope with Government interference.  There has been none for me.  Zero interference.

So why am I leaving. Negaraku.  Love for country is pulling me back to Ireland.

I got a call from Ryanair late evening two weeks ago to be COO. It is Ireland’s greatest company.

They need my help and there is a big challenge.   It is a form of national service.

When I was asked on 27th Sept would I go to Ryanair I said “No”.

But a week later the call came and in life we can really never say never.  I am looking forward to being close again to my family and friends 14 hours away in Ireland.”

Interesting, and I’m a bit conflicted here.

Bellew claims there was “no interference,” that the company has been “supportive” of him personally and corporately. His decision just came down to him getting a call from Ryanair two weeks ago asking him to come back to Ireland, and he views that as a form of “national service.” He said no, but then a week later agreed to it.

Is this really the whole story? We don’t know. On one hand I get that he might have been homesick, and this was a good opportunity for him to return home. He may not have been thinking about returning home in the near future until this opportunity presented itself.

At the same time, while it might not come in the form of “national service,” Malaysia Airlines really needs help given what they’ve been through in the past few years. Taking a huge downgrade in terms of a job title and potentially allowing Malaysia Airlines to lose focus on their recovery plan isn’t an easy move to make either. So I have to wonder.

What do you make of Bellew’s explanation?

(Tip of the hat to May Lim)

  1. He should have called the ex-Delta captain running Somon Air for tips on how to deal with homesickness!

  2. The current CEO has been in his role at RyanAir for over two decades. I think reading between the lines here Bellew was promised to be tapped for the helm in the next 24-36 months (along with a lot of cash and the ability to be back with his family). Don’t think there is much more to it than that.

  3. How is COO a huge downgrade in terms of title? I get that he’s not the CEO, but he’s still in the exec suite and COOs are often candidates to be CEO in the future (like Bellew did at Malaysia).

  4. @ Ben — This reads like a hostage (or Tillerson) video. Read between the lines…of course there was interference by the government and their pals at the investment fund.

  5. @Really?

    Uhhhhh…. if you can be President of the USA with even less ability to string sentences together, then why not CEO of an airline?

  6. @adamh has hit it on the head. He’s moving for future potential, and RyanAir’s long term potential is greater than Malaysia’s.

    I’ll disagree with @lucky that COO is a huge step down. Yes, it typically doesn’t look great when you move down in position. But I’m sure the total package is at least where he’s been, if not much greater. And who wouldn’t want to move home with that on the table?

    I’m careful to always be available to listen to offers, if an offer comes along that I can’t pass on I won’t pass on it! And that doesn’t mean that I’m actively looking for a new job or that I’m dissatisfied with my current position. While I’ll say today that I’m not going to change jobs that can certainly change, even this afternoon. So give this guy a break, we each have individual situations that require individual attention and consideration.

  7. Look at this in terms of opportunity – MH is in the process of right-sizing with 5% of revenue growth required to return to profitability.

    RyanAir meanwhile is in the top 5 airlines globally in terms of passenger count, has amongst the highest margins in the industry, has over 300 orders with Boeing being filled over the next ~8 years and is looking to carry 200 million passengers per year once those deliveries are filled.

    The challenges of Brexit, pilot recruitment, managing that growth and dealing with a more complex regulatory environment stack up favourably against staying put.

  8. COO of a profitable airline with 407 aircraft, with potential to be CEO soon.

    CEO of money-losing airline with 80 aircraft.

    Which would you choose?

    No doubt the salary is a factor too.

  9. @Ben/Lucky, you have obviously never worked for a company before, especially one in a foreign country with a questionable political/legal environment. So I will suggest he is being nice until he is paid out AND he has left the country. If the locals experience a loss of face, he might find he is the subject of an investigation that could prevent him leaving the country. Or, the fact that the airline industry is fairly small, so why burn bridges. Or, he is being honest, though to equate ‘national service’ with returning home to make big bucks in private industry is a bit of a stretch :p

  10. If he cares for MH as much as he claims to, he wouldn’t have basically caught MH with their pants down. It’s clear this is just corporate polite talk, and he is now going to greener pastures.

  11. I have to chime in on the so called huge downgrade in title/position. It’s not. In most companies, the top 3 positions are CEO, COO, CFO. The COO is often the executive that will become CEO when the time comes. The COO, more than any other single person, drives the daily, operational activity of the company. FR is 5X MH. COO of FR is a bigger job than CEO of MH. Plus he has upward mobility at FR, most likely.

    Yeah, I’d take COO of a big airline over CEO of a medium airline all day long.

  12. The explanation says a lot of nothing and as others have stated, reads like a moron wrote it. More to the point, if one has leadership talent in this industry, there are dozens of other positions that would be more desirable, most certainly the COO job at Ryan over the CEO position at Malaysia.

  13. I’d be very surprised if an Irish person wrote those sentences about Kazanah. They just don’t make sense in the type of English that Irish people speak. The rest of the statement is like the flow of consciousness that reads naturally in Ireland. Very strange.

  14. Well, it is not like he did much for MH. From a passenger point of view, MH is still on a downhill spiral. I have ceased purchasing any new business class tickets with this airline until they change their FF Programme and fix their reservation system.

  15. Slightly off-topic but as a supplier to this airline and many others I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous hard work, commitment and passion that continues within MH by rank and file – from front end sales, through cabin crew to engineering and all supporting services…… MH is a national airline in most senses of the word, with all that this entails: national flag, window to the world, local technology and employment giant, object/victim of national ‘political interest’, aspirational vehicle in a highly competitive region whilst competing for fiscal resources in a turbulent economy. Nothing that any other ‘flag carrier’ doesn’t also suffer from, but overlaid by the unforeseen events in the loss of 2 aircraft.

    Under these circumstances it’s a shame that CEOs who sign-up to restore MH’s stability and secure growth find that they cannot fully reciprocate the commitment, hope and expectation shown by staff and employees.

    I hope that regardless of the circumstances for his departure, Peter Bellew’s successor can achieve this.

  16. I think you may have the order of events muddled.

    Wasn’t Bellew asked in media if he’d go back to Ryanair, to which he responded no. Just a media question with no job offer at this stage.

    Then a week later he got asked to come back to Ryanair by Ryanair and said yes.

    Twice this has happened to me that a headhunter has called and sounded me out on something that I never considered a possibility but worked out to be really awesome jobs.

    And yes I too get a sense that there is succession planning in play by the Ryanair board…..

  17. We’ll never know the true story why he is leaving. Most probably after he leaves will more information leak out via other sources. However I bet is the main reason (as of Mueller) due to govt interference in what can and can’t be done…such a pity as he was making good progress both internally and externally.

  18. @Rich Agree – in the timeline given, the only call from Ryanair was clearly after Bellew’s comment of September 27

  19. Khazanah, a financial giant with a lot to say about operations. MAB or MAS you chose what organization name you wish to use, both have had operations issues that contributed to 2 events which cost a large loss of life and much unfavorable scrutiny. So if Khazanah cannot keep ìt’s fingers out of operations issues which involve cost differentials, would you want to be the cheerleader CEO of that company? Answer? No. Ryan looks pretty good.

  20. Lol. The reason is right there. You just have to read between the lines. Obviously being a government owned company means you need to bow your head to bureaucrats and other politics. Not something fun when your job is to revive an airline which lost 2 jets consecutively (one lost and shot down).

    And possibly to avoid future or any propability of entanglement like what happened with 1malaysia sdn bhd.

  21. As a Malaysian I can tell you that corruption runs very deep at MAS. I love flying them due to the amazing FA’s, easy bid to upgrade process, and decent food, but they have never in their history made decisions with the bottom dollar in mind. Trying to change that culture is virtually impossible as evidenced by these two highly qualified men who have quit. Favors, kickbacks, job security for friends who aren’t qualified, people not on station when they are getting paid, etc are the norm and when someone tries to change that there is massive push-back. You are threatening someones cash cow. Make no mistake their is corruption at every level from janitorial staff, catering, maintenance, to main office. Something gets taken or stolen, or someone getting paid for not being there at EVERY level (I personally know dozens of people who work or have worked for MAS). If everyone but the CEO and a handful of his people are getting these ancillary benefits, you wont win. If the CEO can be vetoed by government officials or friends of friends, you wont win. The people (workers,government) dont care about long term job security, its all about how much they can take and how quickly they can take it. Unless MAS goes completely private, fires everyone with a “datuk” in his/her name, and give the CEO real CEO powers, everything will be a half measure. Until then its literally the CEO and the few people he has brought in against the entire company.

    How about a followup on the 747 they pulled out, repainted, refurbished, and put back into storage?

  22. A point a lot of people overlook (especially in this hobby!) is not everyone is obsessed with money and/or status. Who on Earth cares if your job title gets a downgrade if you’re returning somewhere you can be happier?

  23. James Hogan would be a good fit for MH, he’s as recalcitrant as the Malaysians ( HT: Paul Keating, former PM of Australia ).

    I am not sure what these 2 have been doing in the past few years, but the airline is still bloody terrible. Aircraft shite. Food shite. Service shite. Most of the flight attendants look totally disinterested in their work, like “What am I doing here” disinterested.

    I’ve got a few flights coming up KUL-PER which was A330 when i booked, but now 737-800 and an internal domestic flight. Not looking forward to it to be honest.

  24. This is a hilarious statement, clearly written for him not by him. As many others have pointed out the reason he is leaving is right there in the text – the fact he goes so far out his way to deny government interference implies there was tons of it. He will have been under pressure to release this.

  25. Hey I won’t lie, I’ve flown Malaysia Airlines four times since their two disasters. I’ve enjoyed it every time. It wasn’t the best flying experience I had (nothing beats my Concorde flight anyway), nor even in the top, but far from being unpleasant. Certainly, it was more pleasant than almost all my flights on US carriers, especially domestic flights. I’d fly them again any time.

  26. The only way the airlines going to turn around is change all the management staffs include mid level & low level to start fresh again, then all the tumors will be removed.

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