Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Kiwi upbringing a plus in US corporate world

Sarah Robb-O’Hagan puts her rise to the top down to not having anything to lose when facing decisions

Sarah Robb O'Hagan says Sir Peter Blake is a hero whose quotes she uses in her work. Photo / Aviva Klein
Sarah Robb O'Hagan says Sir Peter Blake is a hero whose quotes she uses in her work. Photo / Aviva Klein

Sarah Robb O'Hagan credits her Kiwi upbringing to her stellar rise to become one of America's most successful marketing gurus.

So when the 42-year-old, who heads one of the world's premier fitness companies - Equinox - was named a 2014 Blake Leader she felt "incredibly honoured" and said her Kiwi background had given her "the underdog advantage" throughout her career.

"When you're in the big company or country you are expected to win all the time. You're more risk averse.

"But when you are the underdog like we are, you just have nothing to lose and so every decision you make is 'Well why wouldn't I?'."

Ms Robb O'Hagan was 22 in 1994 when she was appointed Air New Zealand's North American advertising manager, based in Los Angeles.

Four years later she joined Virgin Atlantic Airways and relocated to New York, only to find on her first day that the woman who hired her had resigned.

Instead of being deflated, Ms Robb O'Hagan turned the situation into the greatest opportunity of her career.

"I actually wrote a big marketing plan and organisational structure for the team and put it in an envelope under the president's door and, long story short, I ended up getting promoted to director of marketing."

She helped to establish the airline's edgy difference through her work on the Shag Atlantic campaign.

Later, Ms Robb O'Hagan worked her way back from a redundancy at Virgin Mega Stores to a dream job at Nike where she was involved in the collaboration with iPod.

Six years later the Cantabrian was headhunted to turn around American sports drink brand Gatorade and transformed it into a billion-dollar success, becoming president after two years.

"I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was either going to go really badly or really well."

The achievement earned her Forbes magazine's Most Powerful Women in Sports title.

Other accolades include making Sports Journal's Top 40 under 40 list and being named in Ad Age's Women to Watch.

At Equinox, Ms Robb O'Hagan has embarked on an ambitious expansion strategy and constantly encourages her 10,000 staff across 70 locations in the US, UK and Canada to believe that things can always be better.

She and her Kiwi husband, Liam, have three children, Sam, 9, Joe, 8 and Gabby, 5. Liam is now the stay-at-home dad.

Advancing women's leadership and ensuring girls have access to sport are more of Ms Robb O'Hagan's passions.

Serving on Hillary Clinton's US State Department Council to Empower Women and Girls through Sport was vitally important she said, because research showed a direct connection between girls' participation in sport and future leadership, but American girls were dropping out of sport by the age of 14 at double the rate of boys.

Sir Peter Blake had inspired Ms Robb O'Hagan throughout her career, she said.

"He's a real hero and I've found many times in my career where I've been searching for inspiration and I've googled his story and quotes, and I've shared some of his quotes with my teams over the years.

"I think it's an amazing honour to get an award in his name."

- NZ Herald

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