Celcom boss tipped to become new MAS CEO

Marketing experience and branding savvy make Shazalli Ramly favoured choice

[SINGAPORE] As the search for a new boss to helm disaster-struck Malaysia Airlines (MAS) nears its end, one candidate appears to be emerging as the most likely to take on the laborious task of redeeming the ailing airline: savvy branding expert and charismatic Shazalli Ramly, chief executive of Malaysia's oldest cellular firm Celcom Axiata.

The Business Times also understands that Idris Jala - former CEO of the flag carrier (from 2005 to 2009) and currently the country's chief of economic reforms - is tipped to become MAS chairman.

Mr Shazalli, 53, a sociable and well-liked corporate personality, is understood to be a favoured choice given his acumen in marketing and corporate branding. He spent the first half of the past nine years at the helm of Celcom vigorously rebranding and aggressively marketing the drab and lumbering mobile phone firm - which was steadily losing market share to rivals Maxis and Digi - into a key player in the country's booming cellphone space.

Prior to taking up the post at Celcom, he spent 18 years in the marketing field before joining broadcasting. He is also deemed a likely choice given his close rapport with Khazanah, MAS's controlling owner - which only recently proposed to take the airline private through a RM1.4 billion (S$552 million) deal in order to push through a massive overhaul of the flagging carrier.

The key changes and broad details of a revamp plan could be announced next week, alongside MAS's second-quarter results, which most expect to carry woeful numbers. Current CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya's term ends on Sept 19 and is unlikely to be extended.

"It's not a done deal yet but he (Mr Shazalli) could get the job as there's already a working relationship with Khazanah," said a source close to the airline.

Celcom, which Mr Shazalli heads, is the Malaysian unit of Khazanah-controlled and Malaysian-listed Axiata Group - the country's largest mobile phone company in terms of market value, which has a sprawling presence in nine Asian countries including Singapore (it is the largest shareholder of M1), Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Mr Shazalli's skill as an excellent marketer with a proven track record could be what has led to his unlikely choice as potential CEO of MAS. The airline is desperately seeking to turn around and rebrand its image after two big back-to- back tragedies in four months which saw 537 lives lost.

But Mr Shazalli's stark inexperience in aviation (indeed, a complex and challenging industry bursting with ruthless competition) - especially now when MAS, mired in red ink, most needs an airline specialist - could spark some misgivings.

MAS's patchy financials, apart from a blurry business model and weak management, could partly be due to the fact that the airline has never had a true-blue airline expert as its chief steward. "The person who ought to lead MAS during this interim period has to be someone who is currently holding a CEO or deputy CEO position in an airline or aircraft leasing company or investment bank," said Shukor Yusof of Endau Analytics.

While Mr Shukor's view is widely shared, the pickings, said a source, are not rich, particularly given MAS's dire straits.

"Everyone started out wanting to construct a long list of candidates. What they got is a very short long list," quipped the source.

For one thing, not many are likely to jump at the top job of an airline that has been suffering big losses for three years, whose financial woes have deepened after the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370 and the shocking shooting down of MH17, and is under the world's watchful eye.

"Let's be realistic: it's not who Khazanah wants to put in MAS but who is willing," said an observer.

To fill the gap of Mr Shazalli's deficit in airline experience, the source said, a former MAS veteran with sound network and revenue management experience may be appointed to hold the second key position. Such an individual would be deemed better able to help rid the airline of one of the biggest headaches that has been a drag on its financials: lucrative contracts doled out to cronies.

"MAS needs someone who understands the skeletons in order to remove them," said the source.

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