Marius van der Ham: AirFrance-KLM Kenya boss privilege and small ego issue

Marius van der Ham

AirFrance-KLM General Manager for East and Southern Africa, Nigeria and Ghana Marius van der Ham poses for a picture after the interview on July 3, 2024.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The love affair between the dark suit and the crisp white shirt has been written ad nauseam but it hasn’t been written by me. I’m different. It’s not news but because I said it, it’s fresh.

At least that’s what I think when Marius van der Ham, the AirFrance-KLM General Manager for East and Southern Africa, Nigeria and Ghana walks in, six-feet-something, soft-spoken, in a PR move that shows why the suit took the place of the hat once occupied as the badge separating the ambitious executive from lower echelon workers. Sometimes the suit wears the man, sometimes the man wears the suit.

Here's a quick cheat sheet to the man: a big table. Marius loves big tables. To laugh, bond, eat. I had been briefed that he is a man of few words, slicing the fat off his sentences for lean, quick, ripostes. He is Dutch after all, who are not known for beating around the bush.

But it’s the bush that calls Marius. I can tell because he lights up when he talks about his runs, the animals he sees, and the terrain. Oh, the terrain. “A hill after every other kilometre!” he says, wiping the expression off his face, and I am not sure whether he is elated or dissatisfied. What’s that the Dutch say? “Het is zoals het is.” It is what it is.

Do you remember your first time on a plane?

Yes, in The Netherlands. We had domestic flights, I must have been around five years old. I was on a trip with my grandparents, about 100km. The second time was when I was around 13, the first big trip I went with my family to the United States (US).

Did you know you’d get here?

It was a coincidence, opportunistic even. I was in college in The Netherlands, doing my Master's thesis and needed an internship. My roommate worked at KLM and he recommended an internship there, and voila. Here we are.

What was your biggest culture shock in Kenya?

I have experienced different cultures in my career and wasn’t too worried about it. Kenyans and the Dutch are not so different, sometimes, perhaps not everybody says things directly here but in general people speak their minds.

If you were guaranteed success would this still be the career you chose?

Yes. I have been lucky in my 12 years at KLM. I have spent a decade outside France, experiencing different people and cultures. I have been privileged.

What’s the one place you’ve gone to that has stayed with you?

Atlanta in the US. Being brought up as a child in the 90s in Western Europe, American pop culture seemed the coolest place to be. I was very excited but it was a bit of a letdown when I experienced it, haha! But Kenya has been great too, to live in the vibrancy of Nairobi and the nature sceneries just hours outside the city.

Did you pick up any pop culture tendencies in your sojourn in the States?

It was a bit of a disappointment, from my perspective [chuckles].

What makes you, you?

Hard questions now, eh haha! I am an open-minded, laid-back guy, not easily stressed looking for pragmatic solutions in day-to-day life—both at work and in my private life. I try not to worry too much; I like to know where we are going but the way to get there is open.

You seem quite analytical.

It depends on where you work in the airline. I have worked longer in the commercial side of the airline—pricing—and I have enjoyed figuring out how to make the money, and how to price the tickets. The other side is about safety and procedures to guarantee safe and reliable operations and good customer focus.

How have you remained spontaneous in your life?

My family and I like to go out in nature. We have two small children and two dogs, and on the weekends we settle in and drive to the Nairobi National Park or outside the city.

Are you a bush or a beach person?

Hmm. In the end, I’ll have to go with bush.

Who is the dog person between you and your wife?

We both are! I have always had a dog, even before I was born, we had a dog in the family. The first chance we got when we were living together with my wife, we got a dog.

What have the dogs taught you?

Dogs live extremely in the moment. They only see what is happening at that moment in your life, and they are very reactive to behaviour in general. They have taught me you get back what you give immediately. I believe that is also true in business.

Which is easier—running a family or a business?

Sometimes running a business is easier because my position has a bit more weight than it does in the family.

What kind of father are you?

I like to give my children space. I give them boundaries and let them do their thing and find their way but let them know they can come to me when they have questions.

Were you raised the same way?

My wife and I were raised with a bit more boundaries, perhaps that is why. [chuckles]

What do you miss most about your childhood?

I had a fortunate childhood. I had a lot of freedom within the boundaries, but it was such a free careless time. Sometimes you long for that freedom.

How are you remaining childlike now?

I try not to worry too much about things I cannot control.

What’s your biggest insecurity as a father?

It is mostly a worry that something inevitable will happen. At one point I told my parents that I was not happy about a list of things [chuckles]. My wife and I talk about this: do you remember the point you started telling your parents what you were not happy about? I know my children will tell me too at some point, and it will always be the things you don’t expect. So far, I can still defend my choices.

Marius van der Ham

Marius van der Ham poses for a picture after the interview on July 3, 2024. Francis Nderitu | Nation

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What is the one question you are asking yourself right now?

[Long pause] The role I have now: are we as the men doing the right things for the teams we work with and does it align with what we want to achieve with the business? How can we improve? Am I being the person my family would like to sit at the table with?

Are you a head or a heart person?

Mainly head. I like rationality and logic, but I have a heart family so that is complex.

How so?

I have a very passionate wife, with much more heart, which is good. My son is three and my daughter is six years old, and she has a tendency to go for the heart more than the head at this point. It forces me to go a bit more to my heart; sometimes people give me feedback that I could use a bit more heart.

Is it easy being a head person in a heart world?

It’s my default, so it makes it easy but it doesn’t always make me well-liked [chuckles].

Is there a decision you made using the head when you should have gone with the heart?

You can adjust yourself to the situation, but what is the maximum? Maybe five percent? 10 percent? The 90 percent is you and if you force it, it wouldn’t work. I think.

What’s the one thing you wish more people understood about you?

I generally have the interest of everybody I work with at heart. When you ascend the corporate ladder, decisions get less popular and less easy. You get judged for that and it sometimes feels unfair. Generally, I can handle it but sometimes I think, why am I the bad guy here? I wish people would know that it comes from the best interests.

They say the higher you go, the lonelier it becomes. Is it the same for you?

To some extent. I have a good management team so we lean on each other for support. When you are the person who has to make the final decision, then it can seem a bit lonely.

What do you do just for you as a man?

I was never a sportsperson. Throughout my 30s, I got into general fitness, gym, and running which is what I like to do to relax.

How often do you run?

I was training for the Lewa Marathon which unfortunately was cancelled. I do it once a week, but now I do more gyming. I have done half marathons, one or two marathons et al.

What do you think about when you are working out?

It depends. Things just come up. When I am training, I am doing math—I look at my pace, and try to calculate my distance and time taken. It’s become my routine now. Sometimes, I get Eureka moments and great ideas while running, just like people who have ideas in the shower.

What’s the most boring part about running?

The hard part is getting out of the door, haha! It’s not boring especially not here, because running in the Netherlands is just flat, no hills, but here, after every kilometre or so, there is a hill waiting for you [chuckles].

Have you had a strange encounter on your drills?

A lot of monkeys and dik-diks. That is why I was so excited about the Lewa Marathon. We try again next year; I hope our tickets are still valid, haha!

How do people show you love?

I love being around friends, at a big table with drinks, having a conversation. I have had the same group of friends since high school, for over 30 years. We go away for a weekend yearly and the only thing we are looking for apart from the accommodation is a big table [chuckles]. We love that table where we can just talk.

What do you bring to that table?

I am a bit of a jokes guy. I keep it light and put the atmosphere in the group. But I also like it when we get into deep serious conversations, giving each other advice.

What’s a special memory you have shared with your friends that is close to your heart?

When we were children, it was about getting our first jobs, as adults it was the drastic changes—losing parents, et al. We live in different parts of the world, but at that table, we get each other.

What matters less than you thought it would?

Your title and position. If you don’t act in a way that makes it easy to work with the people who make your life, it doesn’t matter who you are or claim to be.

What have you finally come to terms with?

The easy answer is that perhaps I will not become a professional soccer player. At least, not anymore [chuckles]. I am an ambitious person, but I have learned that aiming for something and developing toward it is an achievement in itself. You don’t need to achieve everything you set your mind on.

What is the soundtrack of your life right now?

Good one. I am a bit of a soft guy, so you'll find me watching a bit of romcom movies and my wife would be like, are those tears in your eyes? I would of course shake my head, haha! But in music, I am a rock guy, Guns N’ Roses is my go-to band.

What’s the most romantic thing you’ve done?

You are putting me on the spot here. Okay, without spilling everything, my wife and I struggled to have children, it took a long time and of course, it was a hard thing, especially for my wife. What I used to do was to write and hide little notes throughout the house, in her bag, and at her workplace. It was small and personal notes of encouragement, and in the end, it worked.

If you could tell me just one thing, what would you tell me?

Have I not told you enough? [chuckles]. I don’t know, Eddy.

Fair enough. Whom do you know that I should know?

Tough question! I am at my wit's end here. [long pause]

Okay then, what do you know that I should know?

Everybody should know that you should try and keep your ego as small as possible. The most successful leaders know this: if you can keep your ego small, it means your ears are open and that you understand the driving factors that surround you. You should know that, Eddy.

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