Tony Charaf, senior vice president and chief cargo officer for Delta Air Lines, emphasized the importance of taking care of employees during his speech before Chamber members. - Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- Tony Charaf, senior vice president and chief cargo officer for Delta Air Lines, was the keynote speaker at the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce's Annual Meeting held Thursday at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center.
Charaf is responsible for maintaining and improving Delta's cargo business, overseeing thousands of tons of cargo and mail each day throughout Delta's global network, which generated $1 billion in revenue in 2011, according to the air line's website.
He put his success as a leader in very human terms, focusing on the importance of care and concern for employees.
Charaf said when he was hired in 1996 from outside the company it was very unusual because Delta typically promoted from within. Charaf, who was born in Lebanon, said he was called during the interview process into the office of a top manager and asked, "Now you're going to be in the heart of the South, leading almost 2,000 people. How do you think you will be accepted?"
"I said, 'When they can feel what's in my heart and my soul, they will see what's in my head, they will not hear my accent, they will not see the color of my skin, and they will not say that I am different," Charaf said.
Charaf began his career at Delta as director of engine maintenance. He was later promoted to senior vice president, Delta Cargo and then named president of Delta TechOps in 2008. After four years, he turned his focus to Delta's maintenance, repair and overhaul business. In 2012, he was named chief cargo officer.
When he was senior vice president of technical operations, the airline was facing bankruptcy, and Charaf was forced to lay off 4,000 employees.
"If it wasn't for my faith, I would have left. I prayed every Sunday, 'God, continue to tell me what I'm doing is the right thing because I want to protect these people,'" he said.
Charaf said he informed the employees months before they were laid off, despite warnings not to, because he wanted them to have grace time to prepare for how they would take care of their families. He told them, "When we turn the ship, we're going to come back to shore and we're going to pick you up.' And you know what, we did, and they didn't destroy the company and they are loyal today more than ever." Charaf said the employees who were laid off were eventually rehired.
Charaf said the formula for a successful corporate culture is taking care of employees, who take care of the customers, and the customers take care of stockholders.
He said when he hears complaints from managers about employees who are not loyal, he asks when they've last gone to visit a sick employee in the hospital, or sent a note to an employee's home to compliment job performance, or let an employee who has been out of work due to illness know that they don't have to push too hard when they come back.
"So when you say there is no more loyalty in the workplace, the question is ... when was the last time you earned it? You've got to earn it," he said.
"If rules prevent you from taking care of your own people, throw the book out and take care of your people. Don't leave anyone behind -- that's how you earn it," he added.
Part of earning that loyalty and building a successful business is changing when it's necessary: "Being loyal to a culture that is dated is not only wrong, it is dishonorable because that's how you take companies out of business and you put the people in harm's way," he said, adding that he is currently championing a totally paperless shipment process at Delta.
Charaf said it's important to zero in on what is "mission critical," or what is the most vital 5 percent that will affect 90 percent of the operation.
But it's just as important to make sure employees understand and are vested in the change, he said.
"When the leader doesn't take the time to let the people know when they're being impacted, what is going on, what the timeline is, what success is going to look like, they fail," he said, adding that the employees who are charged with executing the strategy must buy into it.
"Great leaders find a way to light a fire in the hearts of people that's contagious and sustainable," he said.
He also said employees do their best work when under pressure, so it's important to keep them challenged. A recent report of $90 million in revenues led Charaf to encourage the employee who presented it to find a way to boost that to $100 million.
But Charaf does not follow a former boss's advice to rule with an iron fist and never show emotions. He said that is the wrong advice for a leader. "Great leaders are visionary leaders that have courage, have integrity and have a heart as big as this building," he said. He admitted to crying right along with an employee who had just experienced a tragedy.
"You must have the courage to do it and do it right. Righteousness will always be protected, because the rest of the people, when they sense that I am doing this, they're not going to stab me in the back. They say, 'Can you believe Tony did this,'" he said.
He noted that, when an employee is in trouble, the others ask, "Have you talked to Tony yet?"
"They know I'm going to go to bat for them regardless of how much trouble I'm going to get myself into," he said.
Prior to Delta, Charaf held positions with Pacific Airmotive Corporation and Ryder Airline Services/Aviall. He also holds an A&P license as well as a private pilot's license. Charaf graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering and later received a master's degree in management from Northrop University.
A resident of Atlanta, Charaf sits on several non-profit boards including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the Carter Center and the Red Cross Atlanta Chapter. In addition, he serves on the advisory board of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University.