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Grant Bradley

Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Airline role forced Fyfe to shed his shell

Air NZ chief Rob Fyfe rode a rocky seven years in aviation with inspiration, empathy - and flamboyance when it was needed.

Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe. Photo / Richard Robinson
Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe. Photo / Richard Robinson

Rob Fyfe insists he was a shy guy before taking on Air New Zealand's top job.

During the past seven years he's abseiled down the side of the airline's headquarters to encourage staff to use the stairs, not lifts, worn body paint and not much more to promote "nothing to hide" tickets and run naked down the aisle in front of staff to ensure a 78-year-old granny did the same.

"She declared she wouldn't do that unless I did it first," Fyfe says. "That hasn't seen the light of day yet but there is some footage out there somewhere of the Plan B if Betty didn't work out."

Stunts like that became all in a day's work for the 51-year-old.

"I've largely tried to be as accommodating as I can and we've had this philosophy of not being afraid to project some personality," he said just before staff farewelled him this week.

Among smaller groups of the media at least, he's courteous; even just a bit buttoned down.

But in the traditions of friend Sir Richard Branson his public persona is brash and flamboyant, and that doesn't sit well with everyone in the business community.

Fyfe makes no apologies for that. He's head of a small airline on a global scene that's had to shout to be noticed. "I think a lot of corporate leaders, because they're so reserved in a public sense, their organisations don't create those connections with their customers the way we've been able to."

It wasn't always so. "You say I'm outgoing but my nature wasn't until I came into this role. I've become more outgoing and prepared to do those things because that's what the role and the organisation requires."

Fyfe says something he's not going to miss is the constant travel. He's spent a third of the past three years out of the country.

"I love what I do. I started off in this job loving travel.

"Now I'll be looking forward to a period of not getting on a plane every couple of weeks," he says.

"I will look forward to getting a bit of my life back, this has been completely consuming.

"I would do this job forever but it's that relentlessness of it that I feel I need a break from."

Fyfe took over in 2005, four years after the airline, on the verge of collapse, needed a $900 million taxpayer bailout which resulted in 75 per cent state ownership. His predecessor, Ralph Norris, had nursed the airline through the critical recovery phase to a stage where it could start to build trust with travellers.

"I think Ralph did a fantastic job," Fyfe says. "He had shifted the airline to being more people focused. Post Ansett and 9/11 people had lost their sense of self belief in the airline, the product was tired.

"He'd laid the foundations without doubt - what attracted me to working with Ralph is that our leadership styles are quite similar."

The years since have been some of the rockiest in aviation, with high fuel prices and mostly subdued demand wiping out profits and some airlines.

Air New Zealand has been acknowledged as a consistent high performer in a troubled environment and while the large profits just before the global financial crisis haven't been repeated, it is on track to more than double earnings in the current year, compared with the previous 12 months.

The airline's financial performance and Fyfe's track record as an innovator has won him, and the airline, international praise and a swag of industry and other awards.

Forsyth Barr head of private wealth research Rob Mercer says Fyfe was a "significant", consistent performer. "It became all about the consumer. It made a mark across every area for a small global airline."

The airline has twice won Air Transport World's top award and editor in chief Karen Walker says Air NZ's management had been inspired.

"Rob is an out-of-the-box thinker who truly believes in his work and people, he's a strong motivator of his team and he has boundless energy and passion," Walker says.

Even some-time adversary the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union praises him. One of Fyfe's first jobs as CEO was to announce plans to lay off up to 600 engineers, earning him the nickname "Fyfe the knife".

Although more engineering jobs have been shed as the airline has been reshaped during the past seven years, assistant director of organising Strachan Crang said Fyfe had been upfront and communicative.

"Staff at Air New Zealand ... like him as a person," Crang says. "He's always been communicative and always approachable and honest when dealing with difficult change."

The union had about 4000 members among the airline's staff of around 11,000 and at times Fyfe had been instrumental in resolving disputes when he stepped in.

"We're a bit like a family and we have the odd spat," Crang says.

For his part Fyfe says he is most proud of bringing in new seats and products in the airline's long-haul aircraft, introducing Grabaseat when traditional full-service airlines were struggling against budget carriers.

"We had it in place before they arrived. We were already playing heavily in that low-fare space."

Other deals he notes was the decision to buy a near 20 per cent stake of Virgin Australia which has fortified the difficult Tasman route and given Air New Zealand a footprint in the large Australian domestic market.

He also rates the deal with Cathay Pacific which allowed Air New Zealand to cut its loss-making Hong Kong-London route as a highlight. "We had to get all the Star Alliance and One World alliances to agree, deals like that will be the future of aviation with a lot more collaboration rather than just going it alone."

He is most proud of the decision to tackle the legacy of Erebus.

In 2009 he apologised for the airline's behaviour after the 1979 tragedy and was with a group of relatives that visited Antarctica - an event he described this year as affecting him the most during his time at Air NZ.

"I don't think for everyone it was an end to a chapter but at least it gave them a context to move forward.

"I felt that I made a bigger impact in people's lives that day than at any other time in Air New Zealand."

This week he recalled the worst moment of his tenure - the crash of an Air NZ A320 off the coast of France in 2008, killing four staff, a CAA inspector and two German pilots.

After the crash, Fyfe was the very public and often emotional face of the airline, facing media within half an hour of confirming the basic details.

Trailed by cameras, he travelled three times within a few months to Perpignan with relatives of the men who died. "That was undoubtedly the low point and that's sadly a legacy you don't leave behind when you leave the job," he says.

"I look back and it will be my biggest regret that there were people whose safety and well being I was charged with [who] lost their lives on my watch." He puts a fatality at Air New Zealand subsidiary, Safe Air, in the same category.

"I think we evolved as a company through those experiences, both within the company and to New Zealanders we were able to convey to people we were real people with real emotions who actually cared genuinely and deeply about our people and families," he says.

"We were guided by the right moral and human instincts and not by corporate instincts. I think people respected that."

One of the biggest disappointments has been the four-year delay to taking delivery of the fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner. He signed the deal before becoming chief executive and its delay has been a source of continued frustration and expense.

"It remains the right decision for the airline but it's causing us a lot of disruption," he says.

"We're still running the 767s and 747s that would be retired by now if they had arrived on time."

His marketing department has had hits and misses.

This week ads featuring smutty puppet Rico and other ads have been attacked as part of a pattern of puerile, sexist depictions of women.

Fyfe concedes some went too far.

"If you're going to be a little edgy and have a bit of personality you're going to push a few boundaries.

"You've got to be big enough when you get it wrong and say sorry."

Air New Zealand is part of the Government's asset sales plan which would result in the taxpayer's shareholding being cut from about 75 per cent to around 51 per cent.

The sale would be relatively simple compared with that of the energy companies but it is not top of the list.

Fyfe says he'd like to see the stake sold sooner rather than later. "I value the Government as a cornerstone shareholder and their commitment to remain a cornerstone shareholder.

"What markets don't like is uncertainty and while the sell-down programme is uncertain that is unhelpful to existing and prospective shareholders in Air New Zealand," he says.

"You never know what's around the corner in this business, we've got great momentum with our share price and profit outlook, I'm confident that momentum will continue."

The airline's shares were trading at $1.18 a share when he started in 2005, peaked at $3.12 in mid-2007 before sliding to a low of 84c around the middle of the year.

Helped by a share buyback and upbeat profit forecasts, the stock is now trading at $1.28.

The Fyfe legacy remains.

Many of his long-time colleagues are in the upper echelons of the airline which from January 1 will be run by Christopher Luxon, a Fyfe appointee to a key role two years ago.

Fyfe advises him to be his own man. Luxon's already said he's not keen on being body painted.


The Fyfe file

*Age 51

*Grew up in Christchurch, mechanical engineering degree from Canterbury University.

*1979, began nine-year career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, promoted to Flight Commander in charge of maintenance of the Air Force's Skyhawk Squadron aged 24.

*1988, joined PostBank in Auckland then moved to the BNZ a year later to be general manager, marketing and distribution.

*1996, National Australia Bank in Melbourne, then back to New Zealand as general manager, consumer markets for Telecom of NZ in 1998.

*2000, chief operating officer and then managing director of ITV Digital in London.

*2003, chief operating officer for Air New Zealand.

*2005-2012, chief executive Air NZ.


Break first, then search is on for new challenge

The first thing on the horizon for Rob Fyfe is a break, of sorts.

"I'm going to take the first three months of next year off, some personal things," he says.

"I want to find a new challenge. My strong preference is that challenge will be here in New Zealand. As a result it probably won't be in the aviation industry."

In the early part of the year he may offer consultant services to other airlines. "I don't want to do that as a career step, I don't even want to do that as an income step. I'd just like to share some of our knowledge."

He sits on the board of candle company Ecoya and is also a director of Icebreaker and most recently Antarctica New Zealand.

"I'm not ready yet to move full-time into a governance role. I like to have my sleeves rolled up among people."

Meanwhile, he's off to Las Vegas to speak at a consumer electronics show, to France to ski and, in March, to Peru to climb the Machu Picchu trail.

- NZ Herald

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