Fall 2020
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The Final Word / Conversations with Extraordinary People

Dr. Kofi Smith, President and CEO of Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corporation (AATC), made the list of Atlanta’s Most Admired CEOs. If you work for him, you’d probably echo that one hundred times over given how much emphasis he places on taking care of people first. His path to leading an organization servicing the busiest airport in the world is an amazing journey of determination, change of direction, evolution, and accomplishment. We spoke with Dr. Smith about what drew him to the aviation industry, his secrets of success, and about the power of knowing yourself.
Dr. Kofi Smith
President and CEO of Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corporation (AATC)

What drew you to the AATC?

When I was at Georgia Tech one of my management professors taught me about strategic inflection points, essentially a bell curve. Everything before the top of the curve, on the left, was good—promotions, learning, growth, etc. Everything on the right was diminishing—stagnation, loss of creativity, etc. He taught us that organizations should look to create a new bell curve before hitting the strategic inflection point. I had to learn to think of myself as a company, and when the AATC opportunity presented itself, I realized I was at my strategic inflection point with my prior company and that’s what allowed me to make the move. I actually knew very little about the aviation industry, but I embraced the challenge and the future opportunity to one day lead the company.

What keeps you at AATC?

What’s kept me at AATC is, ironically, the same reason I will leave—the people. They are amazing individuals and we’ve created a world class team. They deserve everything I can give them in order to develop both professionally and personally. I’ve always told my people that they come first, and I will do everything I can to help them. It would be selfish of me to continue to stay too much longer and outstay what I’ve been able to do for the company. I need to hand the baton over to someone else with fresh eyes, and fresh ideas that will take what I’ve done over the last ten years and do it better. And that’s only right for the people of AATC. I’ve done as much as I can.

What’s been the most challenging part of 2020, professionally?

The task of protecting my people. I promised them, even before COVID, that I would always take care of them. Once COVID hit, in the early part of March, I told them I would take care of their financial health and physical health. That has been extremely hard to do with the industry being decimated, but we’ve been blessed that we haven’t had to furlough anyone or let anyone go. When we were in lockdown, we had no one on the team get infected. Once things opened up, unfortunately we had a few get sick, but I’m thankful that they have all recovered and come back healthy. Operationally, we’ll be fine. But making sure all my people are taken care of has been the hardest part.

Would Kofi, in 1999, recognize Kofi in 2020?

Not at all! Coming out of college I was trying to make it in the NFL, but I tore my quad and had to use my industrial engineering degree to make a living for myself. I’m blessed to have come out of the greatest engineering school on Earth (Georgia Tech) and get a job with Milliken & Company. If you’d told me then that I’d be CEO of a company I’d have laughed at you. I hardly had any money, was sleeping out of my car still chasing my dream in 2006, and in 2010 I’m going to be working in aviation and eventually run the company? Not a chance. God has blessed me and surrounded me with amazing people.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

I’ve been blessed to have been involved with so many talented, smart people that I’ve received a lot of advice over the years. The single best advice though was, “know who you are, and whose you are.” When you’re out in this world, you’re going to have so many people that try to make you something that you’re not, that try to make you think you belong to this organization or this group of people. All of a sudden you can lose who you are and that can be confusing and frustrating. I’m in a place where I know who I am. I know my strengths and weaknesses and I know I belong to my father in heaven. So I appreciate all the kind comments. I appreciate all the negative feedback. But I know who I am and whose I am.

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