In the world of business, where people change employers regularly, continuity is rare. But Otto Benz is an exception. The general manager for Japan at Lufthansa German Airlines has been employed by the carrier for nearly 40 years.
“I would call it the world of aviation in one company,” says Benz of the only company for which he has worked. “Lufthansa has such dimension that you can spend your whole career in the same corporation, but doing many different jobs. That’s what I’ve found so intriguing about staying with the company. There are so many challenges that you can meet.”
Benz, who hails from Neuburg in southern Germany, started with the airline as a management student in the late 1970s. After finishing school, he joined the firm full-time and was immediately sent off to a world hotspot.
“One of the Lufthansa planes was hijacked into Mogadishu, and the government [there] allowed the German special forces to liberate the hostages,” he recalls. “As a result, there was an agreement between the two governments that Somalia would receive development aid. One of the results was that the president wanted to have his own airline. Lufthansa was asked to build it, and they were looking for volunteers — I was one of them.”
Benz spent four years in Mogadishu, which he describes as “not the most friendly place”. However, he was able to gain valuable experience in setting up an airline from scratch and watching it grow and become competitive. Benz also gained personally from his Somali experience.
“I met my wife in Mogadishu, so for me, it was a fantastic experience. She was working as a diplomat. We got married and are [still] together.”
As if his time in Somalia wasn’t enough of a challenge, Benz later returned to Africa, where he found himself in the midst of a civil war.
“In 1991, we were the only Western airline operating into Ethiopia. All the other carriers had left because of the circumstances. In my responsibilities, I had to make sure that we would not face any hijackings and that our operations were safe in a difficult environment. On the other hand, we had to make sure that we could serve the foreign community.”
It was in Ethiopia that Benz made his first connection with Japan.
“When the civil war came to its dramatic end, everybody had to be evacuated. And I promised the Japanese ambassador that ‘when the moment comes, we will send you an extra airplane.’ And we did. We kept this promise.”
Benz and his colleagues managed to get all of the Japanese diplomats out of the country. But, after sending his family home, he stayed behind to ensure the safety of his staff.
“There were a few tough days,” he recalls. “In the final phase of a civil war, anything can happen. There is street fighting … You have to make sure that your staff and their families are safe. We had a few difficult moments.”
In all, Benz would spend eight years in Africa before moving on to Italy, then Germany and finally Japan. Since arriving here 11 years ago, he has helped build the firm’s business amid heavy competition and challenges. New airlines have entered the market, while high fuel costs and airport landing fees have presented huge hurdles for all the major foreign carriers. In his role as chairman of the EBC Airlines Committee Benz, together with his colleagues, has fought to have these and other business growth impediments reduced.
“When I came to Japan, the Ministry [of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism] had to approve any type of fare. So it was very cumbersome, with the amount of work involved … this didn’t help to create a very competitive environment,” he says.
“In Europe, this changed many years ago; and, from then, a lot of stimulus was given to the market. So our job was to explain to our Japanese friends that it might help the whole industry if a more liberal approach was applied. Today, as a consumer, you enjoy a lot of product variation and [at] very attractive prices,” he adds. “Compared with 10 years ago, the situation has become a real marketplace.”
In a career that has taken him around the world, Benz believes that cultural adaptability is one of the most important lessons he has learned in becoming a successful executive.
“If you want to work in the international arena — especially when you work in the headquarters and have to deal with your colleagues abroad — you should be sensitive and understand which local factors to take into consideration,” he says.
“So, cultural competence is a basic requirement in a global world.”
DO YOU LIKE NATTO?
Time spent working in Japan: 11 years.
Career regret (if any): No regrets at all.
Favourite saying: Even monkeys fall from trees (saru mo ki kara ochiru).
Favourite book: The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark.
Cannot live without: My family.
Lesson learned in Japan: Stand by your word.
Secret of success in business: Do what you say and say what you mean.
Favourite place to dine: At home, eating Bavarian food prepared by my wife.
Do you like natto? I’ve never thought about it.© Japan Today