ABM aviation industry group president Alex Marren leads by example

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Alex Marren, SVP and president, aviation industry group, at ABM Industries was the first person in her large, extended Greek-American family to go to college, not to mention graduate from Harvard. She has also spent most of her professional life helping people succeed at what they do in a variety of frontline, management, and leadership roles at companies like Hertz, ExpressJet Airlines and United Airlines. But, to hear her tell it, the real game-changer in Marren’s life came when she was in the first grade.

“When I was 6-years-old, my family and I flew to Greece on a TWA 747,” remembers Marren. “I was fascinated by every aspect of the experience and amazed at how aviation truly connected the world [and] this made a deep and lasting impression on me. In high school, I took my interest a step further and did my science project on how planes flew and when I graduated from college … I jumped at the chance to work for a new airline called PEOPLExpress. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Marren is now responsible for taking ABM’s aviation group to the next level in the digital age. Suffice it to say, she is a very busy woman. Airports and airlines around the globe outsource everything from airport cleaning, wheelchair services, parking and transportation to ground handling and catering logistics. ABM provides these services and solutions “from the parking lot to the airplane”.

Under Marren’s leadership, ABM recently won a new contract with Ryanair to provide a managed ground handling staffing solution at London Stansted Airport from 1 February 2019. Through its UK-based subsidiary, OmniServ, ABM will provide all of Ryanair’s check-in, baggage and ground operations handling at Stansted, its largest base with more than 40 aircraft and 200 daily departures. Marren also played an important role in securing a multi-year contract with JetBlue to deliver inflight food, beverages and related supplies to the US low-cost carrier’s flights out of four East Coast airports.

“Our touchpoints often even extend onto the plane, whether it’s helping a passenger embark or disembark via a wheelchair, cleaning the cabin, or handling catering logistics. We interact with the flying public, friends and families, airport personnel, and the aircraft crew. So, our number one priority is to provide excellent service no matter who, where, and when,” explains Marren. One of the ways ABM does this is by empowering its team members to tackle even the most challenging situations, on their own, from the get-go.

“With the proliferation of social media, feedback from the flying public is immediate. To that end, we are single-minded in our commitment to equip and enable our people so that they will deliver exceptional results for our clients and their customers, and to recognize them when they do so. This includes specialized training, reward programs, internal and client-facing technologies, and more.”

She continues, “High-performing companies have a culture of learning and continuous improvement. When things don’t go as planned or an unexpected situation occurs, the best leaders help their teams find out what happened and what to change to prevent it from happening again. This includes techniques such as the ‘5 Whys’ to get to the root of why something occurred, developing actions plans, and seeing them carried through.” The 5 Whys method is described as an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.

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Though gender bias has been observed or experienced by many women in the male-dominated aviation industry, Marren says she hasn’t had many firsthand experiences with it in the workplace. She has, however, grown used to often being the only woman in the room.

“I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with many great leaders over the years [and] I think I have always been judged on my abilities and what I bring to the table to help the business succeed,” she shares. “To be a successful leader in any business, gender really doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter. It’s about building relationships, taking risks, and sometimes putting yourself out there on the line, and learning from the experience.”

Taking risks is something that Marren, after more than 25 years in the travel and aviation sector, is intimately acquainted with. “I’ve shared this story with my team and many others as an example of taking risks. On the morning of 9/11, I was on my way into work as the director of customer service planning with United Airlines when the first plane struck the World Trade Center,” recalls Marren.

“As soon as I arrived at work, I went straight to our Emergency Crisis Center. No one asked for my help. No one told me what to do. I stepped in, and up, to help solve problems, whether it was jumping on calls with the FBI, or organizing teams to assist families who had loved ones on two of our planes. Being a woman didn’t matter in a situation like that, and I’m glad to say that it hasn’t in most situations in my career. Maybe it’s the more straightforward nature of operations, but [I think that] if you are performing and working to help the team succeed, people will see it.”

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