An upward trajectory: Virgin Atlantic's Sumati Sharma CA
Sumati Sharma CA chose a career in accountancy. Now she holds a senior commercial position at Virgin Atlantic, at a time of great change for the airline industry.
Take a quick scan of Sumati’s CV and it is clear that she has always been on an ambitious trajectory to become a successful businesswoman. The fact she started university at age 16 is a telltale sign of her drive and determination.
She is now Vice-President of Special Projects at Virgin Atlantic, a critical role at a critical time for the airline - and a challenging one for the industry as a whole.
Last July, Virgin Atlantic announced a business tie-up with US airline Delta and Air France-KLM, which is acquiring a 31% stake in Virgin Atlantic.
Delta has had a 49% share in Virgin Atlantic since 2013. The deal aims to help the carriers strengthen their respective positions in the lucrative transatlantic market, and to better compete with British Airways and other carriers in that space.
The day after the expansion of the joint venture was announced, Virgin Atlantic created the new role of Vice-President of Special Projects with Sumati in mind. Her remit is to deliver large cross-functional strategic projects, ensuring the new partnership is successful.
Virgin as a group has given me a platform to grow in the way I want to. It’s been a constant evolution and I have always pushed myself.
She said: “We know the value that partnering can bring. Last year we announced the expansion that we currently have with Delta, and with Air France-KLM. That was really rewarding for me because I was involved in the strategy design for that deal.”
This is no small feat for an airline that in March reported its first loss in four years. Hit by industry-wide problems with the Rolls-Royce engines on its Boeing 787 Dreamliners, Brexit, Caribbean hurricane season and a weak pound that cut the number of British holidaymakers flying across the Atlantic, Virgin Atlantic reported a pre-tax loss of £28.4m compared with a £23m profit the previous year.
“We expected to make a loss, but it was less than we expected,” Sumati noted.
Over the past year she has been busy setting out how Delta, Virgin Atlantic and Air France-KLM can work together as businesses across commercial activity, customer proposition and profit-sharing. Now her focus has turned to the legal phase for Definitive Agreements.
The regulatory stage will follow next. The expanded joint venture still needs to gain regulatory approval, including obtaining anti-trust immunity in the US with the aim of completing the deal in 2019.
Being an accountant is an amazing foundation and platform for what I’m doing now. You gain strategic skills, tax knowledge, leadership, stakeholder management and people management.
The past four years have taken Sumati further away from her original career as an accountant and increasingly into the strategic and commercial side of business. But this, it seems, was always Sharma’s ultimate goal, though she hadn’t perhaps fully realised it at the start of her career. Nonetheless, she says it is her grounding in accountancy that has laid the foundations for career success.
“It’s been great. It’s been part of the journey I wanted to take in my career. Being an accountant is an amazing foundation and platform for what I’m doing now. It’s not just the technical and financial skills you gain. You acquire strategic skills, tax knowledge, leadership, stakeholder management and people management," she explained.
Sumati (right) with Anisha Seth CA (left) at the 2018 ICAS Young CAs Summit
"When I look back, what I think has really helped me is the ethics and the code of conduct that is ingrained in you at an early stage."
When she left university at age 20, her father and brother, who were engineers, encouraged her to go into engineering but, because she was good at maths and a female role model of hers recommended the ICAS route, she opted to work at EY in Scotland and pursue a career in accountancy.
Put your hand up and keep it up. Try new things and look for opportunities where you can add value, explore your strengths and weaknesses and find out what you’re passionate about.
What fires her up is the belief that she’s adding real value to a business, and that she is learning new skills and working with people who have “the same values and ethos” as her.
She said: “As long as I have those three things then I’m happy. Virgin as a group has given me a platform to grow in the way I want to. It’s been a constant evolution and as opportunities have come along I have always pushed myself. You have to put yourself in places where you might not know it all but as long as you work hard and learn you can get there."
Sumati suggests to all newly qualified accountants the advice that she herself follows: “Put your hand up and keep it up. Try new things and look for opportunities where you can add value, explore your strengths and weaknesses and find out what you’re passionate about.”
She also recommends building up your network both internally and externally and attending ICAS events because “you never know when someone you meet there will need your help, or you theirs”.
A defining moment in Sumati’s career was when her son started school. She left Virgin Holidays, where she had been General Manager of Finance, and moved into strategy at Virgin Atlantic. Working women, particularly those in business, can undoubtedly relate to this moment.
For the ability to do this she has been able to count on her husband and immediate family, who have provided the support network she needed to ensure her home life ran smoothly and she could step up her career trajectory.
Gender pay gap reporting has been a fantastic catalyst for us to think: How do we move forward? By 2022 we want a 50:50 mix of men and women in leadership.
Undoubtedly it is these core values, along with intellect and hard work, that have propelled Sumati into a top-tier commercial post, and it is also why she is a member of Virgin Atlantic’s diversity and inclusion steering committee. As a woman of minority ethnicity, Sumati stands out in an industry that has traditionally been male-dominated and a glance at the recently reported gender pay gaps bares this out.
Virgin Atlantic’s gender pay gap sits at 27.2% - higher than the UK average of 9.7% - but rather better than at rival airlines. At Ryanair, men earn on average 72% more per hour than women and EasyJet has a 45.5% pay gap. Airlines say the lack of female pilots and senior executives is the main reason for the disparity.
Sumati commented: “Our pay gap isn’t as good as we want it to be, but we know the factors that lead to it. Gender pay gap reporting has been a fantastic catalyst for us to think: How do we move forward? By 2022 we want a 50:50 mix of men and women in leadership and 12% BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic]. Those figures both represent a 50% improvement on today.”
The airline industry is one of literal and figurative highs and lows. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the sector has been experiencing major upheaval as low-cost carriers across the globe challenged industry stalwarts on short-haul routes and, more recently, on long-haul routes too.
Low-fare, low-cost carriers have been a challenge but we have turned it into an opportunity. We’ve always been looking at how we innovate and excite our customers.
Over the past five years, however, major consolidation has taken place in the industry. Technological advances and fuel-efficiency are also beginning to rebalance the outlook for established players.
Indeed, some airlines such as Virgin Atlantic are fighting back against no-frills airlines by offering a similar service. In March 2018, Virgin Atlantic introduced three economy options – Economy Light (which goes head-to-head with low-cost carriers on price), Economy Classic and Economy Delight.
“Low-fare, low-cost carriers have been a challenge but we have turned it into an opportunity. We’ve always been looking at how we innovate and excite our customers,” Sumati said.
One major cloud on the horizon for Virgin Atlantic - and all British transatlantic airlines - is the question of what happens when Britain falls out of the EU-US open skies treaty following Brexit. Sumati emphasised that “one important issue following Brexit is that there are no limitations to UK flights to the US. It’s important this happens quickly to provide confidence to consumers.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Sumati is upbeat and considers the future is bright, not just for her career, but for inclusivity at the airline and for Virgin Atlantic in general.