Rob Fyfe joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force straight out of school, rising to the rank of Flight Commander. Departing military life at 24, he's now a big wheel in business, best known for reviving the fortunes of an ailing Air New Zealand. Today Fyfe works with Air Canada, Michael Hill Jewellery and Craggy Range winery and sits on boards and mentors start-ups. Currently consulting to the Government, Fyfe is bringing private sector expertise to the Pike River re-entry and the Covid-19 response team.
"I grew up in Christchurch, the middle of three boys. Dad was a sales rep. and Mum was the secretary at the local primary school. I grew up in the days of 6 o'clock closing and, on Friday nights, we'd all be glued to the window of our front room, waiting for Dad's car to come down the road with the fish and chips. We'd all jump in the car and drive to the airport to sit at the end of the runway and watch the planes taking off and landing as we ate. We all had individual packages, otherwise we'd fight over who was getting their fair share. It was a really simple, uncomplicated upbringing. Sports every weekend, holidays at the beach, plenty of picnics. But because we didn't have a lot of money, if we wanted something, we had to work for it. I'd say it's hard work over smarts that got me where I am today.
"The first time I ever flew on a plane, it was to Auckland, to interview for the Air Force. I'd never been on a plane before that day. I was drawn to the Air Force because they would pay me to do my degree and I was drawn to engineering because I've always been fascinated by how things work, why they work and how to make them work better. I also had a sense of adventure and wanted to see the world.
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"Within two years of graduating, I was the senior engineering officer on a fighter squadron based out of Ohakea. On one deployment, we took the Skyhawks to Townsville to do exercises with the Aussies. Two aircraft came into land and one aquaplaned and flipped with sidewinder missiles on the wings and pilots trapped in the cockpit. The control tower asked me, what did I want to do about it? That's a lot of responsibility for a 23-year-old.
"At age 25 I had a key decision to make; the way military life was structured, if you stuck around for 20 years, to get your pension, you'd be about 37 when you left - that's a terrible time to start a new career - so I knew I either got out early, or it was a long-term career. Back then you had to give 12 months' notice, so I put in my resignation at the start of '87 with no idea what I'd do next. I was quite interested in the sharemarket and thought I might work in finance - but in October of that year, the stock market crashed and the whole world changed overnight, almost like Covid-19. Twelve months later, when I left the Air Force, the world didn't look like the world I'd resigned in and it was daunting. What was I going to do?
"At that same time, NZ Post, PostBank and Telecom were being created out of the old Post Office. Lindsay Pyne had been brought in to create Postbank from scratch. He recruited 12 bright young people and he wanted one of them to be an engineer so he hired me. Lindsay spent a day a week with us, brainstorming how the bank would work. When he was recruited by the BNZ, which was at risk of failing after the '87 crash, he handpicked three of us from that team to help get the BNZ back on its feet.
'We were nicknamed The Pyne Clones, and we ran restructuring projects. This is '89 to '91, the BNZ's headquarters were at the bottom of Willis St – all kauri panelling with a double-height floor, designed to be intimidating. One day I needed the deputy CEO to sign something. I sent my PA up and she came back down half an hour later and said she couldn't get him to sign. 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'I'm wearing trousers,' she replied. This man wouldn't let a woman into his office unless she was wearing a skirt or a dress. In the early 90s.
"I joined Air New Zealand in 2003. It was really demoralised. It had almost gone bust, the government had bailed them out, people were tired and what drove me was the need to create an airline New Zealanders could fall in love with again. If we could do that, figuring out how to make money would be the easy part. The people dynamic was the big theme, taking the business away from focusing on planes to focusing on people. When I was CEO, the people who wrote to me always wrote about a person who had done something really good or really bad, but they never wrote to me about the planes.
"In terms of this Covid role, I was making a bit of noise prior to lockdown, saying we needed to move faster. We still had tourists coming in from countries that had increasing levels of the virus and we were following the exact same trajectory as Italy. Along with a few others, I made some comments in the media. We loosely knew each other, so we started connecting and sharing perspectives. The Prime Minister and Grant Robertson were aware of it and Jacinda invited half a dozen of us to talk. During the course of that chat we found we were more aligned than we appreciated, looking in from outside. After that, she said, to get this moving, we need one of you to come and sit alongside the government work effort, to use your skills to help us move faster. Because I'd done most the talking, the PM said, 'Rob, why don't you come to Wellington and take that role?'
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"Governments aren't designed to move fast, and this crisis needed an incredibly dynamic response. The Government has many very capable people but I'm used to working in a dynamic environment so I brought some of that push and prod to accelerate things. Because I don't know the rules, or the way things work down there, that can piss some people off, but it's also an advantage.
"I'm not ideological. If I think about my politics, I saw a lot of positives in the last change of government. We needed a stronger social agenda in New Zealand, and this Government has done a really good job of rebalancing that. Worldwide, a lot of problems are driven by the divisive capitalist vs social-driven agenda.
"My commitment was for two months and I finished on Friday. My role was to support the Government to set up systems around contact tracing, testing capability, procuring PPE, getting food to communities in need and ensuring we're in the best shape to respond to subsequent waves. I don't have a specific role now but, I do want to help plan how we rebuild our economy and society over the next four or five years. We have a great opportunity to be a safe haven. We will be incredibly attractive to people wanting to set up businesses, create jobs and build lives here but first we have to build the policies, infrastructures and strategies to attract the people who want to be part of New Zealand's recovery."