Raymond Doherty 31 Oct 2017 03:44pm

A day in the life: Stefan Payne

Stefan Payne is CFO at expanding charter airline Titan Airways. He tells Raymond Doherty about concerts in the sky and the fear of Brexit

Caption: Stefan Payne. Photography: Jon Challicom


I’ve always been an ambitious individual. I didn’t go to university. When I did my A-levels I wanted to be a physiotherapist. I ended up packing sausages in a factory, which was probably a lowlight. I then got a job at The Hilton at Stansted airport. It was supposed to be for a year but I ended up staying for five. After that I moved into retail – I saw this time as my own university. After plenty of hard work and learning lots of skills I knew it was time to decide on a career.

My work experience at school was with a one-man band accountancy firm, which I enjoyed. So I applied for three accountancy jobs I thought would accept applicants without a degree. I was offered all three and took the role at Price Bailey as an audit trainee. I worked my way up quickly. At that time Titan Airways had grown at pace and had a skills gap. They were using the firm to plug it and I was doing that work. They clearly liked something they saw in me and approached me to move out of practice and into industry. It was a tough decision at the time but looking back it should have been one of the easiest. I was wary of being stuck behind a desk, that it would become too stale for me. I wanted a job to keep me engaged and on my toes. The aviation industry ticks all those boxes.


I’ve been at Titan almost seven years. When I arrived it was an entrepreneurial business that had grown and was struggling to keep up with that pace. There were pockets where it had started to outgrow its structure. It was already a time of change and I came in and advocated more. We also had someone quite senior leave. The next few years were a journey. The finance department is now more of a business support unit – not just there to pay the bills. When I joined we had one contract that was 50% of the turnover; now it is worth only 8%. In the last few years things have really taken off and that is testament to the foundations we put in place when I got here.

On an industry level there’s a significant challenge on pilot recruitment. The growth of aviation globally has led to what some are calling a shortage. Either way it’s proving more difficult to get good pilots. We’ve just launched our own cadet scheme. We were quite unique for a while but the marketplace has become crowded. The barriers to entry are lower. A lot of competition comes from eastern Europe, which puts us at a disadvantage in terms of price. But a lot of our competitors just fly for other airlines and that’s a simpler business model. We do that but we also do freight, charter and VIP work. The industry generally has quite a long lead-time but one of our strengths is flexibility. We can react to opportunities and threats quickly.

Brexit could have a colossal impact on our business, we just don’t know. It depends who you believe but there are huge issues with legislation regarding access to European skies, just as there will be with movement of goods and labour. We’re very committed to any EU national staff that we have staying here.


The business is complex for our size so we all have broad scope to our roles. As an industry we are also quite seasonal. Clearly the core financial function is always there, but these days I’m less involved in the detail. Thankfully I have a very switched-on financial controller who I can rely on. We’re an opportunistic business, so plans can change quickly. For example planning for aircraft transactions. They don’t come up often but when they do they’re a huge draw of time, whether that’s a lease, a sale or a purchase. We currently run 11 aircraft. That’s a mix of owned outright, owned with secured debt and some on operating leases. We like to own but it’s not always possible.


A lot of my work is chunky one-off pieces and that drives how I structure my week or day. My diary’s always full, managing multiple tasks and projects. That can include operational matters, recruitment strategy, large contract pricing, aviation insurance, aircraft transaction legals, business strategy sessions or financial review.

I’m restless so exercise keeps both me, and my wife, sane. I love running. It gives me an outlet for my energy, and a release from work. I’m not a good sleeper so I try to prioritise that. I had a bit of a rough time earlier this year when work took over and I realised that I’d been essentially sleep-deprived for two years. I try to train five days a week when I can fit it in. I’m definitely not a nine to 5.30 man.


We do freight work (Royal Mail) and short notice freight for other airlines at Christmas. That’s the unglamorous side of things. At the other end of the spectrum we do VIP trips for football teams, governments, royalty and military. That can be for the UK or other countries.
We’ve done a few bizarre charter requirements. A few years ago we did some “concerts in the sky” where artists performed a gig on our planes. One was to set the Guinness World Record for the highest concert ever performed. Jamiroquai, Pixie Lott and James Blunt have all done some form of it. We do things like the Northern Lights tours where you fly with every light in the cabin turned off. It’s the nature of what we do; very tailored and always varied.


I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without it. That’s fairly obvious but true. It opens doors. I already had the nuts and bolts but the ACA gives you a real business qualification. My ambition was always to be in business and it allowed me to do that. It also requires good old-fashioned hard work too, which doesn’t hurt.


I had to learn the balance between perfect and required. I see a lot of people who try and give the perfect answer or the 100% answer. Sometimes there are situations where you have to rely on your gut.