Making the Numbers Fly

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PAL’S TOP HONCHO STEERS THE COMPANY TOWARDS THE STARS

BY MARGIE T. LOGARTA
PHOTOS BY GEORGE TAPAN

There is a twinkle in Jaime Bautista’s eyes that indicates a man serene in his job and determined to create a difference in the fiercely competitive aviation arena.

These days, Philippine Airlines’ (PAL) president and Chief Operating Officer or “Boss Jimmy”, as his 6,366-strong staff frequently refer to him, has an ambitious goal to achieve – and that’s to capture a coveted five-star rating from the Skytrax airline and airport review ranking site.

But first, PAL has to be assessed and declared a four-star operator.

Smooth and seamless
The deadline for the first phase to “Get That Star”, as Bautista has dubbed the program, consolidating his team’s efforts to be recognized as a premier brand, is not far off. It should happen by year end, when PAL receives two Boeing-777s, which completes a refleeting exercise that began in 2012 (under the previous San Miguel Corporation management but was readjusted in 2014 when Lucio Tan regained PAL) and be well into its service enhancement initiatives.

“It’s really about the passengers’ experience,” Bautista told Boardroom Watch. “From the time they book a flight to the time they check in at the airport and encounter smiling ground staff, board our aircraft to enjoy the meals and inflight entertainment system to getting their baggage on time. It’s got to be seamless…enjoyable.”

To set the stage for client bliss, PAL has had to invest millions of dollars integrating various systems that dictate every step of traveller interaction. As follow up, passengers are invited to respond to an email survey, which prompts them further as they have more to say. “This helps us to know where the pain points are and how we can banish them,” Bautista says. The usual culprits have been identified to be flight delays and lack of accurate and timely information about their resolution. PAL is banking on a set of recently issued service recovery guidelines – listing levels of compensation depending on the duration of the stranded departure – to help soothe ruffled feathers.

The inflight experience weighs just as heavily in the much desired Skytrax upgrade, a factor PAL remains fully aware of. Retrofitting of its B-777s has infused seats with individual monitors in all classes, and should this not be available, the cabin crew supplies iPads or invites passengers wishing to use their own tablets to download the MyPAL Player app, which contains a wide range of entertainment features. Internet is available but at a cost. A reconfiguration this year of eight Airbus 330s – PAL’s long-haul workhorse – will produce a three-class aircraft boasting fewer Economy seats, a newly introduced Premium Economy section and full-flat seats in Business Class. Bautista remarks: “Capacity will be reduced, but we should be able to collect higher revenue from people who want and don’t mind paying extra for comfort.

“With these improvements, I’m confident we’ll get our four-star rating.”

Exceeding expectations
When Bautista was a kid, the son of public school teachers, growing up in bucolic Cabanatuan, jetting to far away places was the last thing on his mind. He recalls simply admiring the “beautiful house owned by a CPA with his name on a sign outside, and running underneath it was the title CPA”. That’s when the idea of becoming an accountant with all its attendant perks “like owning a beautiful house” took root.

Fast forward and Bautista, after years of consistent exemplary educational performance (high school class valedictorian and a full four-year scholarship at San Juan de Letran, BS Commerce, Major in Accounting), now lives in the Makati suburban home that he and his wife Joji made thoughtful adjustments to when they first moved into the new build. A believer in the benefits of feng shui, he had their front gate moved six inches, following the advice of an expert. He sees no conflict between his accountant’s rational training and geomancy, saying: “There are some scientific reasons in feng shui practices.” Not having a tree block one’s front door or a toilet above the dining room makes perfect sense to him.

Greatness or prominence has a way of foisting itself on those who least expect it – men like Bautista who started out with modest expectations, only to exceed them. “Being a VP for Finance” was the highest rung in the corporate ladder he aspired to.

Joining the prestigious Sycip, Gorres and Velayo accounting firm at 20, he spent three absorbing years, under the formidable Washington C. Sycip, whom he describes as a “jack of all trades”. Wooed by the Lucio Tan Group of Companies, he moved over, eventually reporting to the tycoon’s brother and finance department head Mariano. While it took five years for Bautista to work alongside “El Kapitan”, the encounter led to a 37-year partnership that has withstood the gamut of business weather conditions, from sunny days of fat returns to squalls of uncertain futures to even an actual tsunami of near bankruptcy.

Bautista thrived being involved with his boss’ varied acquisitions such as Asia Brewery, Tanduay Distillers and Asian Alcohol. His task was to bring them into line with Lucio Tan Group standards. “I liked coming up with new ideas and concepts of how to turn them around,” he says. “After I had done my job, I went back to head office.”

Then came his stint as chief finance officer of PAL during one of the most brutal periods in its history – the Asian Financial Crisis of the mid-1990s. Bautista had the unenviable task of restructuring the company’s debt, the airline having ordered a number of aircraft before calamity struck. As if matters couldn’t get any worse, the downsizing of operations coincided with a pilots’ strike. Did Bautista buckle to pressure? “It was a stressful time,” the father of one, his namesake Jaymee, admits. “I was very serious at work, but I made sure to forget the problems once I was out of the office. You can’t solve them anyway at home, although I must say it was difficult getting a good night’s sleep!”

Long-time partners: El Kapitan and Bautista

Former PAL president and chief operating officer Avelino L. Zapanta remembers his former colleague as “conscientious and reliable”, surely one of the stalwarts, who helped the airline soften a crash landing and avoid total financial ruin. The airline survived and when asked by El Kapitan to assume the role of President and COO of PAL in 2004, Bautista accepted the role with a sense of equanimity, believing “it was time”.

Aye, aye El Kapitan
El Kapitan is notoriously known for his 24/7 work habits, but Bautista has managed to adapt despite never knowing when his boss will ring up for a chat (lazy Sunday afternoon: check) or to call for a meeting (a thrilling weekend golf tournament with friends: check). It helps, of course, that the corporate helicopter is sent to pick up this trusted lieutenant wherever he may be. After carefully planning a pilgrimage walk of Santiago de Compostela in Spain for his wife and three other couples in 2014, he had to back out since it coincided with Mr. Tan’s buyback of PAL from the San Miguel Corporation. “Since we had paid for the tour and everything, my wife went without me, but that’s still on my bucket list, along with seeing the Aurora Borealis, which my wife has also seen, and the southern lights in New Zealand,” Bautista says with some wistfulness.

Joji Bautista has been the ideal, understanding spouse throughout the disruptions in their personal life, which have come to be regarded as normal. Says her husband: “She is an accountant. I met her at SGV, and she understands the long hours that accountants go through. My daughter is also an accountant and she worked at SGV too.” Through Jaymee, 34, and her husband, the Bautistas are doting grandparents to Joseph and Maria Elena, whose cheeky portraits hold a special place in their lolo’s sunny office at the cavernous PNB building in Pasay City.

How well does he know El Kapitan after over three decades of togetherness? “I think I can anticipate what he will do, and most of the time, I’m right,” Bautista reports. “He’s a risk taker and a visionary.”

Back in the day when PAL was not foremost of their concerns and rambling conversations sprang up spontaneously, El Kapitan would share insights culled from a pastime of devouring history books. “He’ll tell you about not only what happened in China but other countries as well,” says Bautista, who has been unable to absorb his boss’ reading habits due to the horde of issues perpetually clamoring for attention.

If and when the coast is clear, Bautista can be found on the greens, usually at the Manila Golf Club, where he is part of a group of 32 enthusiasts. The sport first caught his attention in the early 1990s when a friend invited him to hit some balls in the driving range. Frustrated that he couldn’t make the right impact, he kept practicing until the challenge turned into a fun escape, which he shares with his wife. “She plays even better than me with a handicap,” he gamely reveals. During their holidays, the couple try to include a game at a famous golf course like they did at St. Andrews in Scotland.

Golf and business, Bautista believes, share common themes. “A good golfer should be consistent. That takes practice.

“In our operations, there are times that service is good, and there are times, it is not so good. To get that star, we have to be consistent in delivering good service. That takes practice too.

During competitions like the popular scramble tournaments, teamwork is essential, Bautista stresses. “You help each other determine the particular skills of each player: who will hit the ball first, followed by the others. In the workplace, each person plays a different role according to their strengths. A good manager determines the skills of his people so he can deploy them to the right job.”

Creative accounting
“Number cruncher…bean counter”. Bautista believes accountancy has evolved from those dry stereotypes of his field to the dynamic management space it occupies today. “We are no longer bookeepers. We have gone beyond the numbers to study and analyze the data. This information helps us make strategic decisions on spending and growing the company.”

Parallel with the intense campaign to attain professional excellence through continuous training and education, PAL employees are inspired to nurture their personal lives as well. Bautista urges: “Take a vacation. Take advantage of your flight benefits. Use it or lose it!”

Many top executives play at presenting a personable facade. With Bautista, one is immediately struck by a refreshing openness. When he says his door is always open to anyone who wishes to consult him, he means it. He only shut it to grant our request for this Boardroom Watch interview.

“Low-key but very approachable” and “a people person, who reaches out to all regardless of rank” were the ready impressions of two former PAL employees.

Bautista has likewise made his mark as one of the region’s longest serving airline chiefs, Andrew Erdman, director, Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines Association, says: “JB is a stalwart of the Asian aviation industry, having repeatedly demonstrated strong leadership in tackling the challenges of responding to growth and constantly evolving competitive dynamics.

“And he is also known for his sunny smile and warm hearted approach to doing business, delighting the crowd at a recent industry event in Manila when he took to the stage to sing along with some of senior colleagues in the Bad Boys Band!”

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