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Balancing Debt with Capital Investment

By John Rainey, EVP & CFO, United Continental

John Rainey, EVP & CFO, United Continental

Defining Objectives and Analyzing Opportunities

For any CFO today, defining a company’s long term vision is likely a top priority.  As United Airlines’ CFO, I am very involved in the development and execution of our strategic plan to ensure we deliver the best financial outcome possible for our shareholders.

When it comes to any major decision at United, from evaluating an M&A scenario to analyzing the financial impact of labor negotiations to making a multi-billion dollar fleet investment decision, my finance team is involved from the start. We collaborate with our business partners to define the appropriate strategic objectives and analyze potential opportunities to create maximum shareholder value.

The aviation industry is cyclical, highly complex, highly regulated and a highly competitive industry, and historically, airlines have been unable to earn a return in excess of its cost of capital. We at United are working to change that trend, and are executing against our long-term plan to do so.  

In addition to being cyclical businesses, airlines are capital intensive and one of my top priorities is defining United’s long-term capital allocation strategy. During the past boom-and-bust cycles, United was not immune to the need to lever up and choke off capital investment just to stay afloat. Now, our industry has structurally changed, due in large part to consolidation, and United is in a much stronger financial position than before. We have made nearly $10 Billion in debt payments since 2009 and have over $6 Billion in unrestricted liquidity.

“Define optimal long-term capital allocation which will balance additional debt pay down with pension funding, capital investment in the business and returning capital to shareholders”

Given these and other improvements in our capital structure, we are now defining our optimal long-term capital allocation which will balance additional debt pay down with pension funding, capital investment in the business and returning capital to shareholders. At the end of last year, we outlined a plan where United will begin to return capital directly to shareholders beginning sometime in 2015, a major accomplishment and a significant step toward maximizing shareholder value.

Collaboration-Key to Driving Business

The key to driving better business results for United Airlines can be summed up in one word – collaboration. With a global operation that transports more than 140 million passengers annually, everything we do at United takes teamwork and increasing the finance organization’s impact is no different.  My goal as CFO is to develop a strong financial and analytical team that is a partner to and resource for the business units at United. As a partner, my team’s goal is to help divisions develop and achieve their annual and long term operating objectives while managing to the enterprise goals. As a resource, our finance organization acts as catalyst for change and driver of efficiencies throughout the enterprise. Airlines operate in a volatile environment, and being nimble is a necessity not just to thrive, but to survive. Our finance team looks for ways to continuously improve how we do business. By building deep relationships with the business units my finance team at United is able to evaluate new opportunities and identify risks quickly and accurately so that we can navigate the volatile economic and operating environment and achieve our full potential.

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