On a mission to elevate her late father’s legacy, Ida Adora Ismail is paving her own path in the local aviation infrastructure as the head of Systematic Aviation Services (SAS).
A leader in helicopter and fixed wings services and maintenance, SAS has been in the business of providing top-notch, quality services ranging from aviation training to helicopter-chartered tours since its founding in 1992.
A family business located at Subang’s Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, Ida is a second-generation CEO, taking over the reins in 2020 from her late father and founder of SAS, Mr. Ismail Asha'ari.
An accountant by profession, the young CEO spent most of her life in Australia as a student of Corporate Finance. But when Mr. Ismail was terminally diagnosed, she knew she had to come home to help with the family business.
“I wanted to do my part. My sisters and I are all very close, so when dad fell sick, someone had to step up and I decided to take on the responsibility,” says Ida. “I had to make sure that all of his hard work didn’t go to waste.”
Back in its early days, SAS’ home base had its start as a reconstructed toilet facility. At the time, Mr. Ismail didn’t have the financial means to build his dream facility. Despite these adversities, he pushed through and met the bare minimum to make ends meet.
By the time Ida entered as SAS’s CEO, it was already at a well-developed stage, with all the proper facilities and a respected reputation as an expert in its field; something Ida credits was made possible due to her father’s passion for aviation.
“Knowing that he put in all of this hard work over the course of his life to building SAS to what is today has been such an inspiration to me,” says Ida.
“Even when he was sick, I would come home and he would still be working on his laptop so I think if he worked that hard, if anything I must work harder.”
“He was an amazing person and role model - and having him as a mentor, watching how he runs the company and how he works with the people around him. That’s always sort of been my motivation.”
“We still have it (the reconstructed toilet) until today,” adds Ida, with a jovial laugh. “It’s the first hanger that we work in.”
Despite having grown up following her father whenever he was going on a flight, Ida came into the job without any prior knowledge of how to run the company or of its day-to-day operations. “The first department my dad put me in was under operations, and I remember just sitting there without a clue about what I was supposed to do,” she laughs.
“It took some time to really figure out what I needed to do. I had big shoes to fill, not only because it’s a big company but also my father was just an amazing, well-respected person to all that worked for and with him.”
“You mention his name and everyone in the industry, locally and internationally, would say to me, ‘Oh. You’re Ismail’s daughter,’ so that does put a lot of pressure on me and makes me wonder if I’m ever going to be as good as him.”
She had to make this work her own way while still keeping true to the legacy her father had built for the SAS family. Since SAS has been in business for over 20 years, the introduction of its new, young leader was a big change for everyone who knew of the company’s reputation.
“My father was running this company from the very beginning, and suddenly this 26-year-old comes in, so the pressure is definitely on for me to step up and decide what kind of leader I wanted to be.”
Though many would presume that she was no different from her father, Ida reiterates that this is further from the truth. “We may have similar styles of approaching things but at the end of the day, I’m not him.”
“In the beginning, I wanted very much to be exactly like him until I reached a point where I realised his way was good for what it was at the time. I’ll take that good and be my own leader, and I’m still learning what that is today,” explains Ida.
Her skills as a leader were tested when the global pandemic first hit, with the aviation industry being one of the worst hit by its effects; though, SAS was affected in its own ways. Seeing as its business model catered more towards general aviation and private operators, Ida and her team were able to push through thanks to its diversified services, which she says is a saving grace.
“We were well aware of what the market demand was and had to act quickly to match that. When one thing slowed down, another picked up, so we were able to work around that.”
Traditionally, the aviation industry is still viewed as a very male-dominated sector, and that is especially true in Malaysia. But that’s not to say that we don’t have our fair share of femme fatales making their mark in the industry. Even Ida, who has been called ‘the youngest female CEO in aviation,’ sees herself as one of many women in Malaysia who are changing the industry. “There were already women in the industry before it's just maybe we don’t hear about it much.”
Having lived in Australia for most of her life, Ida was very accustomed to an environment where gender equality was prevalent in the industry, with a plentiful of active pilots being women. “Being exposed to that and coming home, I was never intimidated working in a male-dominated ecosystem. I think it’s a bonus to be a female in the industry. We’re very detail-oriented which comes off as a boon for the industry.”
With the local aviation industry becoming more a more equal space as the years go on, Ida encourages all women to join the ever-growing landscape and not let doubt stop them from dreaming big because, as she would put it, “The sky’s the limit.”
“Being a woman shouldn’t stop you from going into this industry. I’ve met amazing female leaders in the aviation industry who are hardworking and fantastic at what they do,” Ida encourages.
“Don’t be intimidated that it’s a male-dominated industry because they are as happy to have you here and will welcome you with open arms. We’re all one happy aviation family!”
Penny For Your Thoughts
How would you define a “good life” and/versus a “successful life”?
"I would say a good life is being able to, at minimal, fulfil your day-to-day duties, while having a successful life is being able to balance your personal and professional life.
For me, work may be everything, but I do make time for my friends, family and myself. I feel like you'll always have work so I think sometimes we have to put our foot down and make sure to place our physical and mental health into consideration.
If you could choose to be anyone in the world - who would you want to be, and why?
I would say I would want to be a Disney Princess, any of them. I'm a big fan of them all so as long as I get to be at least one of them, I'll be happy. It would be cool if Disney can come out with a Malay princess.
Advice you would give your younger self.
I would say, 'Chill a little bit more, enjoy your youth more and make yourself happy.'
From a very young age, I would put a lot of pressure on myself that I have to study hard, work hard and do well in life. I was just very well-focused on what I needed to do, so I would tell myself to take a step back and be a teenager because even now, I have friends still figuring out what they want to do. There's no need to grow up so fast.