Businessman Rob Fyfe talks to Jane Phare about his current role as business advisor to the Prime Minister, living with Covid-19, his "slow brain," and what he learned from the Airbus A320 crash at Perpignan and Pike River.
After Rob Fyfe agrees to be interviewed for a profile, his EA asks politely if I can send some questions in advance of the Zoom video being recorded for the Herald's Business Hub. I thought Fyfe was being unnecessarily cautious, suspicious even, as in "what's the media going to ask me?"
But it turns out that's not the case. With the Zoom recording over, we chat on the phone for another hour and Fyfe admits to a couple of things.
One is fear of the unknown. He likes to be prepared, know what he's facing in the room before he walks into it. As a result, he's not particularly fond of the unexpected. He turns 60 next May and no, he doesn't want a surprise birthday bash.
He also likes to know the essence of a problem before he takes it on; know what a journalist's going to ask him, not because he fears the question but because he fears not knowing the answer.
"That comes back to the speed at which my brain processes information."
This brings Fyfe to his second admission. He has what he describes as a "slow brain". He can only read at the speed he talks, which is slow.
There's laughter in his voice as he recalls a story, from 25 years ago, when his National Australia Bank bosses sent him on a speed-reading course to improve what was seen as a handicap.
At the end of a week of speed reading, his class members were asked to identify 10 characters that flashed quickly onto a screen. Rob Fyfe didn't see any.
"I was the complete dummy in the class."
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The tutor told him, in a nice way, that he was a lost cause.
When he was CEO of Air New Zealand, staff learned not to write long reports. Come and have a conversation for half an hour instead, he'd tell them.
And they learned it was pointless delivering a 30-page report to their boss before the monthly board meeting; he'd never read it in time. Four or five pages would do nicely.
Fyfe might have been the dummy in the speed-reading class but he's no dummy. He joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force from school, rising to be Flight Commander in charge of maintenance of the Skyhawk Squadron by the age of 24.
He earned a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) with honours from the University of Canterbury in 1982. He absorbs and retains information, albeit slower than the average person, quickly comes to grips with a problem and sets out to resolve it.
He admits liking a good crisis, in fact is drawn to them, which is why he put his hand up to help when Covid-19 blasted into the country, spending eight unpaid weeks in Wellington liaising between the Government and the private sector.
His task was straight forward. New Zealand urgently needed PPE gear, medical equipment and ventilators, and to develop contact tracing technology.
He knew the private sector could, and did, move way faster than government. By using private channels, Fyfe says New Zealand jumped the queue ahead of countries like Australia and the US that were going through government channels.
"If we had been behind them we could have been waiting months."
Now Fyfe has a new job, this time a paid one - connecting the Prime Minister and the Government with the business community. He's aware of past criticism from the business sector that they've been talking but nobody's listening.
"One of the objectives I have is to try to resolve that."
Prime Ministers, he says, are constantly being bombarded by lobbyists with vested interests. They're also asked to speak at forums and to groups.
"My plea to her (Jacinda Ardern), of which she was very supportive, was 'let's get you along to some sessions where you can just listen.'"
Fyfe's next task will be to help develop a recovery and rebuild plan for New Zealand, grappling with issues like infrastructure, digital needs, education and reskilling the workforce.
He can't wait for the October 17 election to be over; it gets in the way of planning, he says.
That recovery plan will run alongside Covid – learning to live with it while trying to keep the borders as virus-tight as possible.
"Our testing had dropped back to a couple of thousand tests a day before this latest outbreak. My view is that it should be running at 20,000 tests every day of the week whether the virus is with us or not."
Masks, contact tracing, good hygiene, isolation protocols will become part of life. "If we do enough of these things my view is we can control mini outbreaks of the virus without having to go into lockdown. We may need to go into level 2 conditions but I think we can avoid having to go into level 3 or 4."
He describes the effects of repeated lockdown as "brutal" and "not sustainable" and worries that too much faith has been put in the Covid app. He'd like to see the Government move more quickly to develop technology that detects who Covid carriers have been close to.
"Unfortunately in the five months this virus has been with us we haven't moved as quickly as we need to, to develop those tools."
Fyfe's reservation about the Covid-19 app is that if hundreds of people have been at an event where one person tests positive, a huge amount of time and effort is wasted contacting all those people.
Far better, he says, to develop technology that will show who the Covid carrier was close to out of those hundreds, so that tracers can quickly target a much smaller group.
Helping with the Pike River Mine recovery
Fyfe is also involved with the Pike River recovery, another crisis he was drawn to 10 years ago. Fyfe was CEO of Air New Zealand when the mine exploded, trapping 29 mine workers inside.
That night he phoned Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall, offering to put Air New Zealand crisis staff, trained in family liaison and support, on the ground in Greymouth. Whittall politely declined.
But Whittall rang back the following morning, saying he'd like to take Fyfe up on his offer.
"I think it was suddenly dawning on him, just the enormity of the challenge he had in communicating with and supporting the families."
Fyfe put 29 support staff - one each for the families of the men missing - and a manager in Greymouth for three weeks and flew down himself. His view at the time, and today, was that in all the finger-pointing and blame laying, the families were overlooked.
When the Government announced an attempt to re-enter the mine, Fyfe rang Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little, telling him he felt the families had been poorly treated and if there was a role for him, he'd happily do it.
The two men knew each other in a previous life, Fyfe when he was with Air New Zealand, Little when he was running the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union.
"We had a lot of interaction, normally on the opposite side," he says, "but we did develop a mutual respect."
Little asked Fyfe to be an independent advisor to critique the proposals from the Pike River recovery team outlining how they intended to re-enter the mine.
Some of Fyfe's colleagues asked him "Why would you?" Pike River was never going to be a win-win and, they pointed out, there was a high risk of failure.
When I ask Fyfe earlier what he fears, he hesitates and then says he first wants to tell me what he doesn't fear - and that's failure.
He likes the adrenaline rush of putting himself in uncomfortable situations and has an appetite for risk.
Take the apology he made in 2009 for Air New Zealand's behaviour after the 1979 Erebus tragedy. "Again, that was quite high risk. I didn't have any support. My board was very apprehensive about what I was deciding to do and tried to talk me out of it."
Asked if he's relieved he's not at the helm of Air New Zealand right now, an airline facing economic doom in the face of a Covid-19, Fyfe says: "Actually I wish I was at the helm, to be honest. I wake up every day and think I wish there is some way I could contribute ... "
It's an emotional attachment, a passion he still feels for the airline from his years as CEO. And the airline had its own tragedy to deal with during his tenure.
Fyfe was at the Les Mills gym in town one November morning in 2008 when he got a call from an Air New Zealand pilot in Frankfurt who was waiting to fly an Airbus A320 back to Auckland after a handover from a German airline.
The aircraft hadn't arrived in Frankfurt and was now overdue, Fyfe was told. There were four staff on board, a Kiwi CAA inspector and two German pilots.
But, unlike the Erebus crash, this time the airline was prepared. They had run drills for every imaginable crisis and had trained support staff to ready to respond. Within an hour Fyfe had given his first TV interview based on very little information.
"We didn't have ears or eyes on the ground in Perpignan. Everything that was being relayed to us was coming third hand."
That morning he grappled with a tough decision – stay at the command centre and deal with an unfolding crisis or get on a plane to France. He flew out that afternoon, with staff and family members of the five New Zealanders who were missing, knowing those left behind would cope with the help of well-developed processes.
"The way we responded to and supported the families was very different than Erebus."
He was to spend three weeks in Perpignan, and make two subsequent visits with family members.
"We became a little community dealing with this massive tragedy in the lives of all these people."
It was an experience that left him emotionally drained and saw him cry, for the first time, in public, including on television.
On the final night of that first three-week stint, All Black Dan Carter who was playing rugby for Perpignan at the time, came to dinner with the families. Fyfe got up from the table at the end of the night and collapsed.
"I didn't quite realise how physically and emotionally exhausted I was." Normally fit and resilient, it caught him by surprise.
It was a clear signal that he, and the families were exhausted. It was time to go.
"They really wanted to come home with their loved ones and we hadn't found any of the bodies. It was an incredibly tough decision to head home."
It was in 2013, after he'd left Air New Zealand that Fyfe bought his happy place, a holiday home tucked away beneath Coronet Peak outside Queenstown.
"That was my prize to myself for having completed that role."
Before lockdown his routine was to get down there once a month, for four of five days.
"Even if I'm working and I've got a full schedule I'm just in a different mindset down there. It's incredibly therapeutic."
Growing up in Christchurch he'd been to Queenstown every year since he was about 11 but back then, he never dreamed he'd once have a holiday home there. He had a secure upbringing with two working parents but there wasn't a lot of money.
His mum made the family's clothes but if Fyfe wanted a cool pair of jeans he had to earn the money himself. So he did, working full shifts, six days a week at a plastic injection moulding factory making stoppers for glass beer flagons during the holidays.
By the age of 15 he was able to buy his dream trail bike, a Suzuki TS 185, so he could ride out to the Waimakariri River with his mates to hoon around in the shingle.
When he was 16, he got a job scouring raw wool, riding his bike across town after school three days a week to work a 4pm to 10pm shift. That year he bought a Yamaha RD350 road bike and rode it around the South Island, staying at youth hostels.
He's had bikes ever since, that is until the last time he fell off, aged 51, and was banned from owning one ever again.
When Fyfe's not in Wellington he's based at his Takapuna Beach home with his wife Sara Tetro, watching the America's Cup yachts fly past the lounge window.
Tetro, he says, is the "absolute counterbalance" to him - super quick, dynamic, able to come out with that instant quip that eludes Fyfe's slower brain.
"She's the best thing for me for that reason."
Fyfe describes himself as "very shy" and "a bit introverted," with a heartbeat that jumps to 150 bpm when he has to speak to an audience. As a result, he's wary of some social situations.
But Tetro compensates for that. "I actually feel really comfortable going into those spaces alongside her because she will fill the void while my brain is thinking about what's going on."
Would he ever consider a political career? The "no!" blurts out almost before the question is finished. No sign of the slow brain with that one.
He's not blessed with enough patience, he says. Fyfe likes to move at pace, likes the adrenaline that comes with the dynamic nature of big-change programmes. Good in a crisis but not good at waiting for everyone else to catch up.
"I would just struggle with the speed at which government moves." And anyway, he'd never be able to read all those long reports in time.