Thai Smile's New Horizon With CEO Charita Leelayudth
For Charita Leelayudth, her appointment to the management hot seat at THAI Smile is the zenith of a career that began with the low-cost carrier’s parent company, Thai Airways International (THAI), over three decades ago. The certified public accountant, who holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in accounting from Chulalongkorn University, previously worked in external audit at Deloitte Thailand and in corporate finance at state-owned oil and gas company PTT but says that when she moved to THAI in 1988 she was, “hooked for life. The airline industry held a rare charm for me because I never knew what challenges I would face each day.”
No stranger to professional firsts, some years ago she was named inaugural vice president of THAI’s managerial accounting division, which controls the company’s annual consolidated budgeting and management reports. In that role she introduced risk-based internal auditing, identified operational blind spots, helped divisions with cost issues and negotiated targets to improve performance. “Luckily, auditing the airline gave me a comprehensive overview of its operational systems and processes and so I was in a position to recommend high impact solutions to improve sub-par sales and overhaul the fleet during low season to maximise sales during high season,” she explains.
Her contribution was duly noticed and when THAI Smile was established in 2012 Charita was seconded as its chief financial officer. She was appointed acting CEO in October of 2018 before being confirmed in the position in July of this year. Under her guidance then and now, THAI Smile focuses on best practices related to service excellence, competitiveness, cost structure and the development of a highly productive, multi-skilled and properly compensated staff.
“The heart of any service company is its people. We have to ensure our staff are well-trained and happy so that they can translate their enthusiasm to our customers.”
If proof were needed that this approach is working, it came in the airline’s selection earlier this year as only the second Connecting Partner in the Star Alliance global airline network.
Charita describes her ongoing challenges as embedding cost-conscious and on-time priorities in the corporate culture. “With low profit margins, cost consciousness is vital, but punctuality is the key to survival. More than half of all passenger decisions to select an airline are based on whether it is on time,” she says. For THAI Smile, which operates a fleet of over 20 aircraft flying to 11 domestic and 16 overseas destinations, that means ensuring more than 90 per cent of flights are punctual.
An eco-warrior at heart, the CEO is also focused on environmental sustainability within the business and encourages the collection and up-cycling of plastic waste into cabin crew aprons and T-shirts. She also plans to replace single-use plastics with paper and cut food waste on flights by inviting passengers to donate the cash value of in-flight meals to charity.
So is she looking forward to retirement? “Of course,” she laughs, but then adds, “I won’t be completely out of touch though because my family [retired army officer husband and two adult sons] and I are involved in a CSR programme to get coffee grown in Thailand’s three southern provinces served on THAI Smile flights in the future. It is something we can do together.” She will also have more time for her favourite hobby—reading—which she says “has always kept me from being bored, maintained my lifelong knack for attention to detail and expanded my horizons in terms of knowledge and perspective.”