It’s official: Bjørn Kjos stepped down as chief executive of Norwegian Air on Thursday and handed over all operating responsibility to finance director Geir Karlsen, who immediately took over as acting CEO. Kjos claims he isn’t retiring, though, from the airline he founded nearly 20 years ago.
“I won’t become a pensionist,” Kjos said at a press conference in Oslo Thursday morning. “I just think I can do a better job for Norwegian if I no longer have the operating responsibility.” He’ll now concentrate on how the airline can continue to develop, by building out its network as growth slows after major intercontinental expansion.
Kjos repeated earlier claims that he had long been holding the airline’s top management position “on overtime,” and that no one should lead an airline past the age of 70. He passed that milestone two years ago, and speculation has flown since over when he’d actually pass on control to someone else.
“Bjørn Kjos has decided to withdraw, something he’s talked about for several years,” said Niels Smedegaard, who recently took over as the leader of the board of Norwegian Air’s holding company NAS. He called Kjos “one of the greatest entrepreneurs of your time, not only in Norway but in all of Europe,” adding that Kjos’ decision to release top management control of the airline thus came as no surprise.
Board leader to be ‘more active’
Karlsen, brought in to help straighten up the airline’s finances in 2018, will now succeed Kjos, as least temporarily. Board leader Smedegaard said he’d also take on a more active role in management himself while the search that began earlier this year for a permanent CEO goes on.
“Time will tell who will become the new chief executive,” Karlsen said, although he’s widely been tipped as Kjos’ successor. Smedegaard said nonetheless that the board was looking for candidates “in Norway, Scandinavia and the rest of Europe.”
Kjos stood for the presentation of Norwegian Air’s latest results, which showed a pre–tax profit of NOK 111 million but were considered weak after a year of financial turbulence and troubles with Norwegian’s fleet of modern aircraft. Norwegian has a large fleet of the Boeing MAX jets that have been grounded following two fatal accidents, and it continues to have challenges with its large fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets.
Kjos said he was not at all sad that he was making his last results presentation, adding that “I have no problem letting Geir Karlsen take on all the problems with the MAX aircraft and the Dreamliners.”
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) noted how Kjos made a point of stressing that Norwegian Air hasn’t just been his “own baby” over the years, but also the baby of the 11,000 people who now work in the airline that started off running shuttles around Western Norway and evolved into a major domestic carrier, then a low-fare European carrier competing directly against Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and then launched intercontinental routes.
He thanked Norwegian Air’s employees for being part of the airline’s development, and for the public’s support for the airline. He admitted that Norwegian’s international long-distance routes have created the biggest challeges.
“There have been many barriers that we couldn’t have foreseen,” Kjos said. After some summer holiday, Kjos will concentrate on external relations and special projects as an adviser for Smedegaard and the board.
Reaction was generally positive to the news from Norwegian on Thursday. Frode Steen, a professor of economics at Norwegian business school NHH, said it was wise to make a change now, after a year that also included various external takover bids for the airline and demands for fresh capital.
“We have seen that Norwegian has needed to make changes and they’re making them,” Steen told NRK: “When you need to make such big changes in a company where the chief has been so tightly connected to it, and is such a part of its brand, then it’s a good idea that others come in and do the work.”