From his corner office overlooking the boarding area at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Stephane Lopez is able to follow most activities at the facility. The robust Reunion Island-born Frenchman is the general manager of Nas Servair, a Kenyan company that provides in-flight and corporate catering solutions.
James Kahongeh had a chat with him on the business of feeding air travellers, his global citizenry and legacy.
What are the jigsaw parts of providing in-flight catering services?
Behind the tray of food that you enjoy while flying are processes and teams of people who participate in its preparation. Nas supplies fresh food, so we have teams working in the cold kitchen, the hot kitchen and the bakery. Food safety is key, so we have an internal lab where food analysis is performed. The entire process from preparation to packaging and delivery has to meet the highest standards of hygiene.
Having represented many brands in different parts of the world, what has been the constant in all these engagements?
My passion for the job and the dedication to work with different teams to realise our collective goal. As a team leader, your acumen amounts to nothing if you don’t nurture teamwork. I’ve also been curious to discover new countries and to learn their work ethics.
What role would you take if life were a play?
I’m more of a backstage guy. I like to organise people and processes and to make it possible for them to play on stage.
As a manager of people and processes, are there days when you go to bed having missed your targets?
Trust is vital in a team. Without trust, you wouldn’t even go to bed. Trust means that you believe in others to deliver. Everyone, irrespective of their position, works towards attaining the common goal. Denzel Washington says that by learning from our mistakes, we fall forward. Growth happens only within an environment of trust. Yes, such days exist, but we take lessons and move on.
How would you describe your leadership style? What are your leadership tools?
One that places team before individual and emphasises clarity of purpose. I’m open-minded too. For me, communication is indispensable. Company policies that guide relationships between people exist, but ultimately we are humans who must look after one another.
You serve clients that you never meet. How does this influence your approach to business?
Our main customers are the airlines. Their guests are the people travelling in those airlines. At the end of the day, every guest’s expectations have to be met, even exceeded as much as we can. Our relationship is like dominoes. When travellers are happy with the catering services, the airline is happy. This keeps us in business. This applies to our corporate catering segment, where we’re in direct contact with our customers.
Besides yourself and your job, what or who else do you live for?
My wife and I have a son, 15, and a daughter, nine. I’ve travelled with them wherever I’ve worked. As age knocks, the need to be closer to them has increased. Soon our children will be adults and on their own.
Most of your time has been spent serving airlines. How much of this time has been spent actually flying?
I haven’t flown as much as I would want to. Through work, I’ve visited multiple countries, including Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles and Togo in Africa. I’ve interacted with diverse cultures and learnt a great deal about different ways of life. In my excursions, I still haven’t discovered the country which I want to retire to one day.
Picture yourself as a young graduate pitching a business idea. What would the selling points of your product be?
That is tough. I cannot think of a specific product. However, over the course of my career, I have learnt that to succeed, a business must put customer satisfaction first. You must know the customer’s need, anticipate their future needs and meet them.
Your team’s growth is also key. Be consistent. Businesses lose customers for failing to maintain standards. It is a cardinal mistake to take customer loyalty for granted. Those three and managing cost.
Where else would you rather work other than in Kenya?
I have lived and worked in 10 countries. Wherever I go, I focus on the task at hand rather than my preferences. As a professional, you must be ready to fit in and to gain new experiences wherever you are. I’d rather be here.
Your thoughts on the Kenyan business environment?
I have been here for almost two years now. In my personal perspective and through my small window, Kenya’s economy is well structured. With its advantage of young talent, the country has so much potential for growth. We work with many vibrant young Kenyans whose ambition fascinates me. It is pleasant to be here, despite the challenges.
So, what stimulates you?
People. Cultures. Challenges. Discoveries.
Who’s the author of the last book you read?
Harlan Coben. The book is a thriller in French called “Par Accident.”
Perpetuating the legacy of a 70-year-old brand is obviously a job for the valiant. What keeps you racking your brain as you sit in your corner office?
Marking our 70th anniversary last year was wonderful. Our focus now is to celebrate our 100th and 150th anniversaries. Pioneers of our company may no longer be here, but they built a solid brand. As the GM, I have to ensure we take the brand through the next stretch of the journey.
Anything you hope to hack one day?
Maybe to read an English book from cover to cover. I have never finished reading one. I struggle a lot with English.
Do you believe that successful careers are defined by legacies?
My personal legacy is not a priority. Nas Servair’s legacy is what keeps me awake, how to work and grow with my team. It is up to others to choose what they want to remember me for.
Your plans for when you will finally hang your boots?
I hope I will retire someday (Chuckles). To be honest, I don’t know yet. It’s probably too early to tell. I hope to fly around the world for adventure. My hair may be greying, but I have many years ahead of me to work.