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You have to be either a visionary or a masochist. Or so it seemed listening to Air Canada CEO Robert Milton and a group of airline aficionados gathered in the Bronfman Building last week to chat about what could be the most volatile sector in business.
Milton was on hand as part of the CEO Speaker Series organized by Professor Karl Moore and the McGill MBA Students Association. The lunchtime event allowed students and alumni to meet the man behind the media hype and to learn first-hand about what it takes - professionally and personally - to make it in the airline industry.
Youthful and charismatic, Milton seemed surprisingly serene for a man who has been at the centre of some of corporate Canada's most savage dust-ups. He was relaxed and thoughtful as he described how he became the head of Air Canada at 39, only to be confronted two weeks later by a hostile takeover bid from Onex Corporation.
Having survived the attempted coup, Milton went on to steer his company through a cascade of crises that would have shattered the nerves of a bomb squad veteran: SARS, oil shocks, regulatory fights, terrorism, bankruptcy protection. In the end, Air Canada not only survived but has come to be a model for other airlines around the world.
So why does he do it? In Milton's case, it's a matter of following his own advice that aspiring executives should choose a business that they love. Obsessed with airplanes from a young age (he used to read scheduling manuals for fun), Milton has written an autobiography whose title, Passion for Planes, says it all. Among the most precious of his flight-related experiences was meeting Joe Sutter, the chief designer of the 747, who worked in an era when engineers still used slide rules to make their calculations.
The informal setting also allowed Milton to relate some details about his personal life, including his strong commitment to vegetarianism and his perspectives on a press corps that has had it in for him on more than one occasion.
"Sometimes you have to accept that there are a lot of people who don't know what they're talking about. But I've also learned to agree with the guy who said 'Don't pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel'," smiled Milton.
The event also provided an opportunity for questions. An in-the-know audience made the most of it, asking Milton for his thoughts on everything from convergence trends to irascible employees.
"Those are nasty questions. But good questions," was Milton's initial response to a pointed inquiry about recent purchasing decisions involving Bombardier and Airbus.
The event had something of a living-room feel despite the business garb worn by many in the audience. MBA student and organizer Joy Bennett sat comfortably with Milton at the front of the room for an opening chit-chat in order to facilitate a more casual atmosphere.
"We wanted to give a little more insight into the man you read about in the newspaper. [The CEO Speaker Series] is intended to let students and the McGill community see first hand what CEOs have to say and to hear their side of the story," said Jamie Wald of the MBA Students Association.
The Milton luncheon is just one of a number of shoulder-rubbing events through which the management faculty has provided students with an opportunity to meet high-profile business people. Other recent highlights have included a visit by CAE's Robert Brown and a trip to Omaha to meet the celebrated investor Warren Buffett. (See story here.)