Mark Pirihi started with airline 25 years ago when it ran two services a week, now he is its new boss in NZ.

Cathay Pacific's new boss in New Zealand is 25-year veteran Mark Pirihi. He started in a sales job when the airline ran just two services a week between Auckland and Hong Kong.

From next month he takes over as country manager for the airline which now operates up to two services a day (and with Air New Zealand a third as part of a partnership) and has new planes on the horizon.

The 46-year-old joined the company under the leadership of David Figgins, who went on to have 37 years in the job.

"David was massive, he was like a father figure and a real doyen of the industry," Pirihi said.

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He was brought up in West Auckland and went to Kelston Boys High School and took a business studies course through Atlantic and Pacific Travel before travelling overseas and coming home broke.

"I literally fell into it through word of mouth and was given the opportunity on the basis they [Cathay] were looking for a salesperson with no airline experience. They wanted to train me in the Cathay way."

He used to travel around New Zealand selling the Cathay brand to agents.

He reckons he was in the right place at the right time to be appointed the airline's New Zealand manager, succeeding Brian Tsoi, who has been appointed country manager for Switzerland.

"I'm a big believer in fate and timing," Pirihi said.

Cathay had put a sharp focus on leadership training during the past few years.

"I've learned to listen to a company like this and there's been a focus on people and leadership programmes. We use the line that, 'It's people that make an airline'," he said.

He hopes to nurture and develop local talent within the airline to give those staff similar opportunities in the future.

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"As country manager I see it as an important role to develop the skills of the staff to assist them in their career development."

Cathay had opened in New Zealand in 1974 and when Pirihi joined it was flying jumbo jets with the old green and white "lettuce leaf" livery. In December it replaces an Airbus A340 with a Boeing 777-300 which will add another 7000 seats to the route over summer. Next year there are plans to use the world's newest widebody plane - the Airbus A30XWB - on the Auckland-Hong Kong route.

The New Zealand business concentrated on selling seats to the outbound market, those returning to Hong Kong, mainland China, India and Europe to visit friends, leisure travellers and frequent business travellers. Customers were booking later which made selling tickets more challenging.

"While the load factor remains high they may be booking a bit later - we've been through early bird sales but something as simple as a good summer means people weren't thinking about a holiday."

The competitive landscape changed regularly. When Pirihi first started out, the United States carriers were the competition, but his airline now faces an onslaught from Mainland Chinese carriers with China Southern, China Eastern and Air China this year.

"This is a small country and we're fighting for a share of it. We're never going to go away from being a full service carrier serving all parts of the globe."

Mark Pirihi

• New country manager for Cathay Pacific in NZ.
• Currently sales and marketing manager for the airline here.
• From West Auckland; educated at Kelston Boys' High School.
• Of Ngapuhi descent. His paternal grandfather was from Takahiwai on the shores of Whangarei Harbour.
• With wife Natalie, lives in St Heliers and they have two sons, Jackson, 13, and Fynn, 10.