Richard Inder: Lifestyle can't hold this Kiwi high-flyer

Ralph Norris' departure for Australia is a loss for New Zealand. The turnaround at Air New Zealand is testament enough to the sort of leadership the country needs.

When he took the reins in 2002, the carrier was fresh from reporting a $1.42 billion loss, its ambition to take on rival Qantas in its home market with Ansett was lying in tatters. Since then, the airline has been transformed.

Strictly speaking, Norris did not save Air New Zealand.

Its future was assured as soon as the Government decided to front up with $885 million to stave off collapse. Having made such a commitment, no government would have walked away, even if management had been mediocre.

But Norris' leadership has been far from average.

His most obvious achievement was the adaptation of low-cost carrier practices to a flag carrier.

Measures such as taking away meals from short-haul flights and successfully rolling out internet and automatic ticketing stripped out costs. But they did not bring with them the low-cost turn-offs that can - as Britain's easyJet has shown - sustain a reality television series.

Moreover, the airline remains flexible enough to ensure the needs of valuable business travellers are met.

The company culture - at first arrogant and then, after the Ansett debacle, introspective - is now enthusiastic and customer-focused.

Air New Zealand is also in rude financial health - it has more than $1 billion of cash, an essential buffer if it is to remain aloft in such a cut-throat industry.

It is held up as a case study for carriers around the world and is completing the final phase of its revival - the revamp of its long-haul fleet.

There have been failures along the way, the most notable being the thwarted pursuit of an alliance with Qantas.

But it is proof of Norris' calibre that he remained in the hot seat without a peep from investors. In any other market, he would have faced some awkward questions.

His contribution to the life of New Zealand away from the airline, including roles with the Business Roundtable and the Starship Foundation, speak of a commitment to the public good and are the markers of one who provides leadership with a capital "L".

New Zealand's prosperity depends on retaining such leadership. His move to CBA can be understood by anyone with an ounce of ambition and, therefore, should not be accompanied by much regret.

A small economy will always struggle to retain its most talented. And it is a reminder that lifestyle is not enough.

 

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