It's a pivotal moment for Africa's aviation industry. Will Tewolde Gebremariam's successor be able to continue on the airline's unprecedented path to growth and resilience amid a pandemic, internal conflict and global geopolitical shifts?
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam, who transformed the airline into Africa’s biggest carrier, said on Wednesday he had resigned to focus on his medical treatment.
In an internal memo to employees seen by Reuters he said he had had health issues for almost a year and had been working from the United States for the past five months and was not able to return to the head office any time soon.
“I am retiring early due to health issues,” he told Reuters in a text message, echoing the language in the memo which said he would focus on his treatment.
In his 11 years at the helm, Tewolde grew the carrier from just 33 planes into a fleet of 130 planes operating on local and international routes, and from 3 million passengers to 12 million passengers, pre-COVID, the airline said in a statement.
“Mr. Tewolde led the airline for over a decade with remarkable success reflected in its exceptional performance in all parameters including but not limited to exponential growth from 1 billion USD annual turn-over to $4.5 billion,” the state-owned carrier said.
“Under his leadership, the airline group has grown by four fold in all measurements.”
The airline confirmed the board had accepted his request for early retirement and said a successor would be announced shortly.
Tewolde led the company through the coronavirus pandemic without bailouts by pivoting to cargo, keeping the company profitable and cash positive.
Tewolde also helped the airline recover from the crash three years ago of flight 302, a Boeing 737 MAX bound for Kenya, killing all 157 passengers and crew.
Tewolde’s career saw him win a number of accolades including “African CEO of the Year” and “Best African Business Leader”, according to the Ethiopian Airlines website.
“Tewolde is one of the best performing CEOs of a multinational anywhere in the world. He has more than delivered on every performance matrix,” said Zemedeneh Negatu, global chairman of Fairfax Africa Fund, a Washington-based investment and transaction advisory firm.
(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle, Mark Potter and Alison Williams)