Words by Ilze Pole
Photo by Gatis Gierts
Photo location Trentini, Space and Design, Riga
Martin Alexander Gauss,
President and CEO of airBaltic
He arrived right on time. Then again, I’ve never yet met a pilot who has arrived late for an interview or photoshoot. Sometimes they don’t even confirm. They simply arrive. Half an hour early. And Martin Gauss is a pilot.
That late Friday afternoon full of September sunlight, Gauss arrived directly from a session in the A220-300 simulator. He was dressed in a perfect dark blue suit and tie. As always. ‘If I ran a different company, I would be different,’ he says. ‘But I’ve been in this industry for 30 years; I represent the airline – safety and punctuality – and I’ve learned in life that if you hold a certain position, you have to fulfil certain expectations.’ Saturdays and Sundays might be exceptions.
Gauss has been with airBaltic for nine years now, and he strongly embodies its DNA. Or maybe it quite easily could be the other way around – airBaltic has taken over his DNA, marked it with the ambition, vision, energy, and drive to move, to take it forward, and to not give up. We talked a lot about this during our conversation, but I began with a simple question about that October 25 years ago, when airBaltic took its first flight.
October 1995. What you were doing?
I was based in Munich at the time. I was a co-pilot at Deutsche British Airways on Boeing 737 aircraft, the same aircraft type that airBaltic had in its fleet. My goal was to become a captain, which I did later on, and I was already involved in helping management. I was paying off a loan I had taken out to become a pilot. That was a burden on me, and I couldn’t afford to buy a house, so we rented one; I remember it had a small garden. I was married, and my daughter was born a year later. And because I wasn’t from Munich, my social life mostly revolved around the people from work. I played tennis occasionally. I used to be a semi-professional tennis player; I can still play very decently, but I don’t do it that often anymore. I play golf more.
Munich Airport had just opened; it had only one terminal at the time. It was heavily criticised for being too big and having runways that were too long. But I’ve seen it develop over the years, and now, at least before the Covid crisis, even with three terminals it was hardly able to cope with the passenger numbers.
Having been in this industry for so long, I’ve seen historic things happen. Nineteen years ago, I was running the airline’s operations. On September 11 of that year, there was a warning strike going on, and I was managing pilots to fly rather than strike. That was my task on the day of the September 11 attacks, and after that the world changed. Like with Covid now. I’ve been with this industry through several crises, and we’ll get through this one as well. The only question is what and how things will be afterwards. But we have the opportunity to develop that ‘afterwards’ by being ready to grow out of it. That’s what I’m doing now.
The world is very different today. Even if we just consider the fact that the airBaltic Training Centre has a simulator for the A220-300, the world’s most modern aircraft.
Yes, the aviation industry now has the Airbus A220, the most modern aircraft in the world, and the greenest one, too. But I believe that, as an industry, we have not developed as fast as other industries. In the past 25 years, we’ve seen developments in other industries that have been real breakthroughs.
There are regulatory issues, of course, but I think we need to get better, especially if we look at the future and the sustainability of developing aircraft. I’m guessing it will be electric; biofuel can only be an intermediate solution, because it’s very expensive and still burns something. But I think we need to be faster in developing future technologies in our industry. And also on the ground. We have very old-fashioned ways of doing things. For example, we use the Amadeus system, which has its roots in the 1970s. We have airports that operate like dinosaurs as well. Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have Google or Amazon, so I hope that in 25 years we will have learned from this and will develop much faster.
This is an extreme crisis, nobody can survive on their own. States are supporting their airlines, but in general, airlines should support themselves. We’ve survived through various different crises, and also this time the shareholders made sure that our airline has the trust to continue. But this airline needs to be able to maintain itself. In upcoming years, airBaltic needs to be in the stock markets, raising capital from shareholders, because they believe in the profits and the positive future we are going to produce. That means we need to grow significantly, and with this new aircraft we now have we’re on the right track. Now we just need to get back on the track that was working so well for us before the crisis.
We will be driving sustainability in the industry. Not only in terms of aircraft types but also in business ethics and in the development of future managers for the company. We are now developing a high-level management and leadership programme, called Alfa, which will work according to similar principles as our Pilot Academy. There’s another project coming, too, but I can’t yet talk about that very much.
Gender diversity as a form of sustainability is something we’ve already achieved. Our workforce in management is exactly 50% female. In top management, 40% are female. No other airline in the world has such high numbers. In this sense, we’ve already overachieved in terms of sustainability according to a pledge signed with IATA last year, which sets out to increase representation of women in management to 25% by 2025. airBaltic has 50%. We want to maintain that.
There are other initiatives I want to implement as well. I want to have full electric ground operations, which Stuttgart Airport already has. No cars running on fuel are used there. With our future development, we will hopefully be able to influence certain things to make Riga Airport a positive example, too. Twenty-five years from now – maybe already five years from now – airBaltic will be a very different company.
But how did it all begin for you? That’s a question we ask all the pilots we interview for Baltic Outlook. What’s your story?
In my case, it wasn’t a childhood dream. I had begun studying economics when I read an article in Capital, a German business magazine, that talked about becoming a pilot as an alternative to studying. I read it, saw the salaries for pilots, and thought that that would be a much more efficient way of earning a good living. I was doing all kinds of jobs on the side just to survive while studying. Tough stuff, including offloading ships and working night shifts for a German parcel service.
To become a pilot, I had to complete my military service, which was mandatory in Germany at the time. After that, I took out a loan and started a pilot’s education, being quite naïve and thinking that when I was ready, there’d be no problem getting a job. That wasn’t the case. It took a while, but eventually I was employed by the British Airways subsidiary Deutsche BA. I became a pilot because it was faster than getting a degree in economics and the salary sounded good. My choice was very rational, but I loved the job and I still love flying today.
The focus on the business side of things started already in my first year, when they took me into the office and asked me to do some extra work, which happens with co-pilots here at airBaltic as well. Then I was sent to leadership training. BA was a very good education for me; a lot of it took place in the United Kingdom.
Later I was able to do many different jobs within the airline. I’ve been the boss of the crew planning department, ground operations, the director of flight operations. I became a captain, and I flew as a training captain. I’ve flown more than 8000 hours on commercial aircraft. So, I saw many very different areas of the business before I became a managing director of the airline. I keep up my pilot’s licence, but my job today is not being a pilot; it’s running the airline. But I’m proud that I’m a pilot, and I respect the job of a pilot very much, because it was my first job and it has helped me a lot. But my dream has always been to be an entrepreneur. That has never changed.
Is that something that’s in your nature?
I was raised as an entrepreneur. My family had a company, which I was supposed to take over one day, but it collapsed after 20 years of operations despite having been very successful. Just before I began my studies, my family lost all its money. That’s why I had to work to earn a living. But the desire to be an entrepreneur comes from the way my parents raised me.
They both have an entrepreneurial spirit, they both worked hard, and I’ve always lived my life building something up. My parents both are still around, they both support me very strongly, and my father is my biggest idol. He’s an engineer, a very smart and intelligent person who has no problems using an iPhone, iPad, or social media. He’s one of those people who can easily reach 100 and still be fit. My goal is to live to at least 103, and I’ll probably raise it, because medicine is always developing (laughs). But tell me why not? Right now I say 103 years, but I might adjust that upwards when I turn 53 next year. At the moment, I want to live to at least 103 and be fit. When people ask me how long I’m going to work, I say that I will always work. Because I don’t work like many other people do. I’ve never looked forward to the day when my work will be done or when I’ll retire.
I do understand that a lot of people work for that day when they’ll finally be able to do what they’ve always wanted to do. I’m the opposite. I do all the things I want to now. Work is a very important part of my life; it drives me. But that doesn’t mean working every day from nine to five. For me, it means using my abilities to create something, to take something forward. Why would I stop doing that? As long as I have a functioning brain, I will always work. I’m not looking forward to any retirement age. Not at all. Quite the opposite. I’ll work at least until age 75. There are enough people who still work hard at that age. Then I’ll see how I feel (laughs).
I have too much energy. People call me Duracell because of the energy I have. I don’t know… I just have it. At one point I fought it, because it’s disturbing to the people around me, especially in my private life. I tend to lose people along the way because I go too fast. I used to stop myself so they could catch up, but that didn’t really work. Paga, paga, paga (wait, wait, wait – Ed.), that’s the Latvian word you’d use a lot if you were working with me (laughs). You’d say I need to sit down, rest, breathe. I do all those things, obviously, but in a different way.
How do you deal with it?
I listen more today. I’ve learned that my speed sometimes leads to the opposite of what I want to achieve. But normally, if I lose someone, I find others who then want to follow this path with me. It’s not just in relation to work; unfortunately, it also affects my private life. But there’s nothing you can do if somebody says that this is enough for them and they don’t want to go any further. For me, it’s not about material stuff – I’m well beyond that – but there’s so much to do, to create!
Some people say: but you already have airBaltic, you’ve turned it around, why do you want to do more? And I reply that airBaltic is a small airline, but why do we have to be a small airline if we fly the best jet in the world and have one of the best countries in the world as a platform from which to develop? Latvia is a European country; it has young, intelligent people and a good education system. It has people who are dedicated to their country. Why can’t we be the base for one of the biggest airlines in Europe? Why not? We’ve seen so many developments in the world, such as cities in China that did not exist just 20 years ago. Why can’t we take it beyond the Baltics and have the best, the greenest, and the most sustainable airline in Europe?
The combination of Latvia, its amazing nature, and airBaltic is perfect. Now, with Covid, Latvia is getting a reputation for being one of the best in the world in dealing with the virus, which will have a positive effect on airBaltic. I see Latvia very, very differently than Latvians do. And the people I’ve met here in the past nine years! It’s not only about the skills and abilities, it’s about just letting them work! Remove the barriers for people and give them a chance!
There are companies in Latvia like Twino, but the world is not talking about them. airBaltic is one thing they talk about, and I will make sure more is told about it. And we will always have the Latvian flag raising it up. I was the first person from Latvia to talk with Richard Quest on CNN. I was very proud sitting there in New York with him and being asked about this country. I want to go again and talk about the success of airBaltic. I want to take airBaltic to the stock exchange. Those are the targets I have.
That’s what drives me. I like the company. I run it as if it were mine. That’s how much I like it.
Growing within a professional career is like a path. Never ending, don’t you think?
I agree. We all reach a point of our own incompetency, but we don’t know when that will happen. Which I really like, because I think it lets you go further; and right now I don’t think I’ve reached that point, not at all. And I don’t feel like I’ve reached that highest point, either. Therefore, I have the energy to go on and see what the world has for me, and I’m committed to exchange my energy for that. To achieve more. And it’s not at all material in my case. It’s about achieving the targets I have with airBaltic. There is a lot we can still do.
What are the main things you’ve learned along the way?
To not give up. That’s something in my blood now – not giving up and finding a new way. When I was a teenager playing tennis, if I felt that I wasn’t going to win, I would give up. Especially if the score was 6:0, 6:0. I would have been, like, ‘Come on! Let’s call it a day.’ But today I would not do that. I would fight to the end, because I don’t give up.
I’ve also learned that in our industry age doesn’t matter. If we look at managerial roles, an older person is not necessarily better than a younger one. I was a young manager, and I had to put up with a lot of challenges because I was called too young for… everything. Because of that experience, I deliberately give young people big responsibilities. What I’ve learned is that you do not necessarily need somebody who has experience; you need somebody who has the right mindset, especially if it’s about development in any area. For me, age is completely irrelevant. On the other hand, if I need someone with specific experience, I choose according to that. Of course, it depends a bit on what you do, but this is something I’ve learned myself, and it has paid off. There are people who’ve made a career because I said to them, ‘You can do this job!’ I know I can see the potential in people.
And the third thing… I think the best advice I got was from my mentors almost 20 years ago. I had sold my Deutsche BA shares and got a lot of money for them, but, especially when you’re young, you have to make sure that something like that doesn’t spoil you. You need to continue valuing what you earn for what you do. When you’re in your mid-30s and you get wealth like that in one go, like a lottery win, that would normally change your lifestyle. But my mentors said to me: ‘Listen, give it to the banks, let them deal with it. You continue to focus on working, you’re too young to lean back and relax, you’re not done yet!’
I’m very thankful for that advice, and I would give the same advice to others as well, if I saw someone in that same situation. Of course, I did all the crazy things people do when they get a lot of money, but I adjusted, and it was a learning curve for me. I’ve seen people lose touch with reality because they’re taking home big pay checks. Or thinking that they’re above or better than others because of that. The arrogance that comes with money… That’s something I don’t like.
Do you like having people around you?
I need people around me. I cannot be alone. I’m not enjoying this time now, when I feel locked in because of the Covid isolation rules. I cannot travel, because I need to work. I can’t leave the country and I’m not socialising much here, so it means that on weekends I’m mostly alone. But I’ve seen the country properly.
I understand you took your car and drove around to explore Latvia.
Yes, I’ve seen it all. Every beach, road, and stone. I’d do other things as well, if I could, but that’s for when we’ve finished dealing with Covid.
People working close to you also say that you have a strong sense of intuition.
Yes, I have. Sometimes I think it’s crazy, but I see things before they happen. It’s intuition backed up by previous experience.
How does that affect your decision making?
It definitely helps. I can read body language. It’s something I really love and try to do. I read books about it and take courses. Of course, you can read someone you know very well, but the challenge comes with people you don’t know at all, and I think I can do that extra well. Trying to find out what the person opposite me is really thinking – from the facial expressions, from the gestures, maybe the person is trying to hide something. If somebody’s feeling uncomfortable, then I have two possibilities: I can increase the level of discomfort, or I can decrease it. It depends on what I want to achieve.
If the person is wrong, let’s say, about some kind of a solution for a problem, and I feel that they don’t really believe in it themselves, then why should we would go on? Why don’t I just break the ice and say that I want to do the opposite?
Also, for example, if I’m interviewing someone for a job, I ask myself whether I’d be able to spend a week travelling with that person. Could I travel with the interviewee for a week, or would that person get on my nerves very quickly? If I can’t imagine travelling with the person, how can I work in the same company with this person for years? I feel that you have to be able to go through all the ups and downs in business together, and why employ a person if you feel it’s not a good match?
Managerial roles are not only about success and high flying; they’re mostly about managing the low points. Like the one we just had in mid-March. It must have been tough.
Where did you find that point of strength within yourself to face it, to hold those online briefings every day for staff to explain every move the company made and the impact it would have?
I’d say that was the most extreme phase in my life. First of all, I made a conscious decision to not go home to Munich, although my family asked me to go. I stayed in Latvia. I was locked in here and couldn’t travel anymore. Back then, nobody knew how long it would take and how things would develop thereafter. There was the fear of the disease itself, and I had extreme moments, too, like all of us, facing our own fears – for ourselves, for our families, for our jobs. But I was alone in Latvia.
Luckily, I had a team of 11 people – my top-level management team – and in a way we became like a family. Sometimes we worked through the weekends. That gave me strength – seeing these people every day and working with them. We had already been a close team before, but I feel that we’re way closer now. If I hadn’t have had them, I think I would have gone ku-ku, as you say in Latvian (laughs).
At times, there was no sign that things would ever get better; things just got worse and worse. I was dining alone at Riviera, I was having breakfast alone at Latte It Be, and I was afraid that they would shut down, too. I bought food to have at home in case there was a complete lockdown and I couldn’t leave my flat. I couldn’t go back to Munich, so instead there were a lot of video chats.
I would say that, psychologically, it was the toughest time in my life – being here alone. I’m better at being alone now than I was before. But I still don’t like it. I like to socialise.
I heard a lot of positive feedback from airBaltic’s employees that hearing from you during that time was very helpful.
I’m writing a book about the double turnaround, and this is going to be a big chapter, because I think it was done very well. Not only by myself, but by our whole team, and it needs to be written down because it’s an example of how to go through a crisis and stay in touch with people. I’m proud that we did it as a team, I’m proud to receive feedback from our employees about how it helped them. I keep these messages and e-mails, received even from people whom we had to unemploy. That shows that we did things the right way. That motivates me to keep going.
What did you discover about yourself during this time alone?
That I have a tendency to sink into a negative mood, where I cannot find the way out. I never did that before in my life. It was only triggered by that time alone here. That was something I learned about myself that I don’t like at all, and I’m fighting it. My life was always, like, ‘I’m like sunshine! I can do anything at any moment!’ But since lockdown I’ve had a kind of negativity in me, and that’s really bad, because I’m actually a very positive person by nature – positive without having read all the positive-thinking books. If I have a fight with someone, I need to restore harmony with that person immediately.
But there was a time when I got, you could say, depressed, and I couldn’t find a way out, and I hated it. But it’s much better now. I never thought it would take 52 years to find that out. But I believe it happened because of a combination of things that happened to me from February onwards. There are no pills to cure it, only self-esteem – which I have enough of – and telling myself to go beyond that point and be myself again. I lost a bit of being myself at that time; I was focusing too much on needing others. But no, if you are who you are, if you’re happy with yourself, then everything is OK.
What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
I ask. For everything. That’s why it’s good that I’m with other people. I don’t give up until I know. With anything. If you want to become a doctor nowadays, you can start studying medicine if you want to. There’s nobody on this planet stopping you; if you really want to, you will be a doctor. This is not something for which you have to be able to jump two metres high. You just need to be able to study and pass exams. I always use this example, because both of my eldest children are studying medicine and I have the greatest respect for that; it’s tough and long. But it’s the same with a lot of other things.
If you really want it, you can make it happen. You can bombard the world with requests for money, you can make business plans and have ideas, and you can bang on all the doors until you find a way to get it financed. The question is whether it makes sense and what are you going to do with it.
When are you scared?
There are a very few things I’m scared of. And I don’t do them. I don’t do deep diving, and I don’t stand on the edge of the rock looking into the abyss. I don’t do it.
I’m not scared of business problems, of not making it. Every day I have 24 hours to find a solution. When it’s done, when it’s over, is it really over? Am I the guy who’s still riding a dead horse, as the saying goes? I’m the guy who reanimates the dead horse before I stop riding it. I’m always still trying. That’s probably where my energy can sometimes annoy people. It can be annoying that I don’t give up. But then… at the end of the day I’ve achieved a lot by not giving up.
What gives you fulfilment in life?
Love. The sense of being truly loved. That’s the only thing I believe is worth going for and which fulfils me.