Carrie Hurihanganui came to New Zealand from Rockford, Illinois a week after her 18th birthday. She quickly fell in love with a "handsome young man", then over two decades built a career that has made her one of the country's most powerful women in aviation.
What was meant to be a short, pre-university stay with a friend in 1989 has turned into a three-decades-old love of Steve, the country, and a stellar CV at Air New Zealand, which she has just left to start as chief executive of Auckland Airport.
"Within about a month of being here, I met a Kiwi boy and decided that I might just stay a little bit longer — there seemed to be quite a good connection. This year that will be 33 years," she says.
On Tuesday, Hurihanganui starts in the top job at the airport, one of New Zealand's biggest companies with a market capitalisation of $10.5 billion and a critical cog in the country's post-pandemic recovery.
Her 20-year career at Air New Zealand started as an international flight attendant — a job she took to give her more time to study for a business degree. Her final role was chief operating officer during the pandemic, in the eye of the storm amid the most difficult commercial environment in the airline's 80-year history.
"That's a tough job when you're trying to move at speed and you're trying to work in an environment that you actually can't see around the corner. You're not quite sure what's coming next."
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Hurihanganui's hometown of Rockford in Winnebago County has a population of about 150,000 and is a 90-minute drive north of Chicago. She was delighted when Air New Zealand began non-stop flights to that city in late 2018.
"I'm from a typical US family. I'm the youngest of three, two older brothers, my father worked in the automotive industry and was self-employed, my mother was an intermediate school teacher," she says.
At school she applied herself to the subjects she enjoyed — more arts than maths back then — and loved sport.
"I'm very competitive and my thing was track and field and cross country. I've always loved running through most of my adult life, done marathons but my knees have packed up, so I've taken to power walking."
In her final year at high school she met Rhonda, an AFS exchange student from Rotorua. "She and I became great mates and decided it would be a fabulous idea to come to New Zealand before me going back to university in Illinois."
Arriving at Auckland Airport, Hurihanganui was picked up by Rhonda's father, a farmer, and had a sudden and deep immersion in Kiwi life on the journey to Rotorua.
"He chucked me a pair of Red Bands — it was bucketing with rain and we went straight to Fieldays. That was my first 24 hours in New Zealand but it was all part of the experience."
She had heard of New Zealand before coming here, but that was the extent of her knowledge of this country, and she soon discovered Rotorua was a small place where it was easy to meet people.
"I'd seen this handsome young man a couple of times in town and we got to chatting and really connected early on. So the rest is history."
Studies in psychology back home were put off and she stayed in New Zealand doing a series of jobs in sales and marketing and customer service for Rotorua Electricity and NZ Post.
"I was always envious of people who would say at 15, 'I want to be a lawyer', or 'I want to be a doctor'. And they stuck with it, went to university and pursued it.
"I was always ambitious, I was always curious. I guess I knew that I wanted to go on and continue to do bigger and brighter things but I didn't have that kind of absolute career path."
That led to distance study for a Bachelor of Business Administration at Massey University (rounded off with study at Harvard Business School in 2017) chipping away at a few papers at a time. Looking for a way of having time to study while still earning money, she applied for and was accepted into Air New Zealand's international cabin crew programme in 1999.
"You chuck your books in a suitcase and on your layover offshore you power through your assignments and reading and that helped to accelerate my degree. So it was a perfect kind of marriage."
They were long flights and long layovers as that was the time when Air New Zealand was flying to London and Frankfurt with Boeing 747 jumbo jets and in the Pacific Rim using 767s.
Hurihanganui says she enjoys people, and cabin crew have a key role in the passenger experience.
"Sometimes you'd have people that were going for really quite sad reasons like funerals or sick family members and other times it's weddings or to do a business deal. You can have an impact on people when you're in an aluminium tube for 12 hours," she says.
"I really enjoyed, clearly enjoyed, the travel and enjoyed the fact that it was allowing me to accelerate my degree."
Climbing out of trouble
Just on two years into her Air New Zealand career, terrorists attacked the United States with passenger aircraft on September 11, 2001, temporarily paralysing aviation and leaving a long-term impact on air travel.
Hurihanganui was pregnant with her first son and that morning she was on non-flying duties.
"When I got to work the TVs were on — surreal, which is a word that's been used a lot, and it took a bit to connect to what was actually happening and what that meant."
Airlines were in trouble and it came at the worst time for Air New Zealand as it was being dragged under by its foray across the Tasman with an ill-fated investment in Ansett Australia. Air NZ needed to be bailed out by the Government.
"That's 20 years ago and I still recall there was a sense within the company that we would navigate that. And we did," she says.
Ralph Norris came in as chief executive and launched a customer-focused recovery.
After deciding she didn't want to continue spending up to 10 days away from home on international flights, she decided to stay grounded as an operations co-ordinator and was then identified as a leader, becoming international service delivery manager at a time when the airline's cabin product was being overhauled.
Lie-flat seats were being introduced and service changed.
"When those changes started to happen and we were able to run a clear road to recovery — it was incredibly uplifting for everyone in the company."
From near-collapse, the airline recovered and then after the global financial crisis rapidly grew its network — and its profits.
Hurihanganui served in a variety of roles: manager at Auckland Airport as kiosks and electronic bag tagging was introduced; managing offshore airports at a time when the airline had a footprint in 16 countries; and leading regional airlines. She also led the establishment of London and Shanghai crew bases.
Her roles were typically in two-year blocks and she built up an impressive CV.
"Air New Zealand is good at providing development opportunities and moving people around the organisation," she says.
"If I look at my career, I've had 10 different positions in 20 years. You're moving to another area and that teaches you new things and new challenges."
She did have a brief stint away from the airline in 2017-18, working for National Australia Bank as executive general manager of customer experience. But NAB, and the entire Australian banking industry, became embroiled in a Royal Commission inquiry.
"That sucked some of the oxygen out of anything outside of that for a while, understandably, so it was around that same time that the opportunity to rejoin Air New Zealand came up in an executive role in operations."
She was part of Christopher Luxon's executive team at a time of further expansion into the US while dealing with engine problems in the Dreamliner fleet which resulted in as many as five planes being grounded at one time. These were big problems at the time, but were put in perspective by what was to come.
'Everything was just stopped'
Two years ago this weekend, Air New Zealand flew a repatriation flight from Wuhan — epicentre of the yet-to-be-named Covid-19 outbreak. The unique flight was an ominous sign. Commercial aviation temporarily came to a near-halt within two months.
"People write leadership books on leading through ambiguity and the theory's great but actually during the last couple of years, business in New Zealand and aviation and tourism has been living that," the 50-year-old says.
"Certainly when it was unfolding, you need to make quick decisions — you need to make the proper decisions because everything was just stopped."
Airlines earn money quickly in good times but burn it faster when conditions turn and this was like nothing before in the industry's century-old history.
Air NZ scrapped routes, grounded planes and began laying off what would run into thousands of staff.
It was important to "over-communicate" during this time.
"You need to do it but at the same time, that's impacting everybody everywhere at all levels and so the need to communicate and almost over-communicate is really important."
She farewelled close executive colleagues and other staff she knew well.
"I felt physically ill. You come home, you're going through all the things that you need to do and the decisions and you're thinking about the people in the company," she says.
"I always thought I was relatively flexible and adaptable prior to Covid but it certainly has tested that. The impact on people has not only been work related — the personal impact has just been enormous."
Support for staff was crucial. "It was really important to help people on that because we knew that it was having an impact."
When she announced her resignation, Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran described her as having exceptional leadership skills and operational knowledge.
"Carrie has done an exceptional job, especially since Covid began to impact our business. It was no small feat to keep our operations running across engineering, airports, airline operations, properties, supply chain, cabin crew and pilots during a constantly changing crisis."
Hurihanganui is a rarity on the New Zealand business scene, a chief executive of a major listed company. She is Auckland Airport's first woman boss in its 55-year history.
Air New Zealand is chaired by Dame Therese Walsh but at an executive level Hurihanganui says that during her entire career, she has never worked for a woman.
"I've had incredibly supportive managers and mentors and male managers who have been fantastic. But I would have liked to have had some role models that I could have potentially connected and learned with and I could have worked for."
She says there's truth to the idea that you need to see something to believe it.
"I'm absolutely happy to play that role. If I can help to encourage women to step outside that comfort zone or continue to grow then I think it's really important."
The lack of women leaders was not only a problem for NZX-listed companies but across New Zealand business.
"And that's just a product of recruitment and processes and pipelines and policies that maybe aren't family friendly. There's a real opportunity there — females growing in that space is something I'm really going to advocate," she says.
The airport job appealed for many reasons, not least the role it will play in the economic recovery as New Zealand's major gateway for people and air freight.
"It's also got a role to play in the community and as I've gotten older then that marriage between being able to have a positive impact from a business perspective, but a positive impact from a community perspective. Auckland Airport has a key role to play in South Auckland, in the region and in New Zealand and in terms of travel, trade and tourism."
In normal times the airport held a veritable licence to print money, handling close to 20 million passengers a year. But Covid meant unprecedented financial losses, a scramble to restructure debt and delaying billions of dollars of capital works that had been years in the planning.
While it can draw on retail and property income, its core business is planes and around half the 29 airlines that flew here before March 2020 have stopped during the pandemic. High on the priority list for Hurihanganui is attracting them back as the airlines say long-haul flying in particular is badly hit by the Government's current plan for tourists to isolate when they can enter the country again.
Her breadth of airline experience is welcomed by carriers. She understands what makes them tick.
"The rebound is giving the confidence to consumers and confidence to the airlines."
Much of what she learned at the airline is directly applicable to operations at the airport.
Health screening could be just as common as security screening became after September 11.
"How do you as an industry make that ecosystem really efficient so that it doesn't become a four-hour affair?"
Digital development will mean more contactless travel as passengers want to avoid touching things such as kiosks when travelling.
Auckland Airport has frozen aeronautical prices for 12 months, something that will help the sometimes tense relationship with airlines. The pandemic had led to more collaboration between the airport and airlines.
"There's a lot of a lot of shared interests; we're certainly not going to agree on everything all the time, that's the nature of it. But there are things absolutely that are complimentary," Hurihanganui says.
• Job: Chief executive of Auckland Airport. Rose to chief operating officer at Air NZ over 20 years.
•Family: Married to Steve. Two children: Jackson, 20, and Quinn, 6.