Air New Zealand’s laid-back chief executive isn’t bothered about business speak and motivational babble. His is a hands-on, direct approach. And that means being able to communicate with everyone from the hallowed customer to company check-in staff.
Straight-talking Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe doesn’t do management speak. Ask him a question and he might tell you a story about his daughter, or tell you about Butch, the cleaner who showed him how the soap holders were too low. Chumminess has long been part of his appeal as CEO. “You can talkto people about vision and mission and values and stuff,” he says, “but you go and have that conversation with a baggage handler on the flight line and they will just completely tune out.”
Fyfe has been responsible for the turnaround of a company that, a decade ago, was a basket case. Shortly after 9/11, the airline was bailed out by the New Zealand government, which bought an 80 per cent stake for NZ$885m (€532m). Just over a year later, Fyfe joined the company as chief information officer, becoming chief executive two and a half years after that. “The company was still on its knees,” he says. “It had lost its self-belief and it didn’t really have a sense of identity.”
The solution? “Fronting up”. Fyfe has worked on making himself – and by extension, the company – as open and accessible as possible. He writes a weekly email to staff and encourages all 11,500 of them to contact him directly, whether that’s with criticism or suggestions for how to do things better. He answers all his own emails personally, especially ones from customers – “It’s the ‘Dear Sir’ ones that you start to get nervous about,” he says – and maintains that most of the recent innovations at the company havecome from customers or staff, not the executive team.
The former NZ Air Force engineer worked for a range of corporations in New Zealand – including Bank of New Zealand and Telecom – before heading to Britain, where he was managing director of ITV Digital. He returned home in the early 2000s, determined that his children would grow up there.
Knowing ANZ inside out is part of Fyfe’s secret. At least once a month, he works in a different part of the business: he’s cleaned toilets and worked with maintenance teams. He regularly travels economy – on both his and competitor airlines – and can usually be found in the galley talking to the staff and helping serve the coffee.
Fyfe has implemented a strong service culture, from the top down, and understands communication should be reciprocal. Soon after taking the helm as chief executive, Fyfe headed out to the hangars to talk with people on the ground. “Bringing our people to life hasn’t just been about a big kind of love-in,” he says. “It’s actually been about honest, open communication and having everyone in the company understand what it takes to run a successful airline.”
It’s the little touches that make a difference. Air New Zealand, he points out, has a 3 to 4 per cent profit margin. For instance, a Boeing 737 flying from Auckland to Wellington has 133 seats, of which an average of 100 are occupied. The first 96 passengers cover its costs, and by 104 seats its profit margin doubles. “The difference between a highly successful business and a business that’s at risk of failure, you can put down to plus or minus four passengers on every 737 aircraft.”
It’s motivated, friendly staff – Air New Zealand’s customer service is acclaimed, from the on-board concierge to its localised call centres and lie-flat beds in economy – that keep customers coming back. “It won’t be about a seat or it won’t be about a meal or it won’t be about a bag. It will be about a person and the interaction they’ve had with another person.”
The result? Under his tenure, Air New Zealand has returned to profit, won Airline of the Year three times and was recently named New Zealand’s most respected company. “You can’t value those things,” he says. “We just have to have an intuitive belief that if we do all those things right, that we’ll have 104 passengers on our 737 rather than 100. It’s a leap of faith at the end of the day.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
I don’t like being at my desk. With iPhone and iPad, I can be accessible from anywhere in the world. If I’m in Auckland [two days a week], I normally get my first batch of emails done during the warming up before my spin class starts at 06.00. I’m normally in the office by 07.30.
Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership, an MBA school or on the job?
If you have the right attitude and personality you can learn everything you need to know on the job.
Describe your management style
Business is simply about people and relationships – my style is centred around open, honest communication and being very accessible to both customers and employees.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
Ultimately business is not a democracy. But we discuss the hard issues openly.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
Neither. I want to be recognised as being honest and as having integrity.
What does your support team look like?
My support team is 11,500 Air New Zealanders. I can find myself calling on any one of them.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
iPhone, iPad, Bose headphones for the aircraft – and a Jambox Bluetooth speaker. I always work with music on.
Do you read management books?
I haven’t read a management book since I left university and probably didn’t read as many as I was supposed to when I was there.
Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I try and get to the gym six times a week. I socialise whenever I can with Air New Zealand employees – it helps me get an understanding of the company.
What would your key management advice be?
Be accessible, don’t over-complicate life and don’t shy away from tough decisions.