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Rob Fyfe in no hurry to make plans

ELOISE GIBSON
Last updated 05:00 27/05/2013
Fairfax NZ

Former Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe reflects on his time with the airline

Former Air NZ chief Rob Fyfe helps new Zealand companies reach world class levels of performance.
Fairfax NZ
CONSIDERING HIS OPTIONS: Former Air NZ chief Rob Fyfe helps new Zealand companies reach world class levels of performance.

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People waiting to know former Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyfe's next move will have to wait a few months yet but it won't be a big airline, bank or telco.

The trouble with succeeding in a high profile role is that when it is over, there's an awful lot of focus on what you'll do next.

Since he announced he would leave Air New Zealand, Rob Fyfe was tipped as a leading contender for various plush leather seats, including one at British-based Virgin Atlantic. Whether he wanted the jobs is another story - he's looking to seat himself somewhere different.

"I don't feel a desperate need to lead another big corporate. You won't see me - I can assure you actually - at a huge telco or big bank."

As soon as he stepped down Fyfe said he did not want to lead another airline. What he wants, he says, is a fast-growing business that celebrates its Kiwi roots and wants go global.

From what he's seen, he is not sure many of our large homegrown corporates fit the bill.

"I want to help companies reach world class levels of performance from New Zealand, similar to what we did with Air New Zealand."

So we might see him lead a small, high-growth company?

"If I'm able to realise my ambition that's likely where I'll pop up next."

Suitors should probably not hold their breaths. Fyfe has told potential wooers not to send him any serious job emails until at least October, when he will have had 10 months off.

Otherwise "I know my head will start going down that path before I'm ready".

He says he knows he wants to live here but may stay away longer if he doesn't feel ready or doesn't find the right job. Until then, he's globe-trotting: Skiing in France, watching global conference talks in California, absorbing the sights of Machu Picchu and walking the Inca trail.

He's thrown a bit of work in too: mentoring Jeremy Moon, of merino outdoor clothing business Icebreaker [of which Fyfe is also a director] and consulting for the major in-flight entertainment supplier Panasonic Avionics. His directorships are developing a sustainability theme.

There's Trilogy, the New Zealand-based skincare and candle company known until this week as Ecoya, Icebreaker and Antarctica New Zealand, the Crown entity managing New Zealand's Antarctic activities.

The green tinge neatly matches Pure Advantage, the alliance of elite businessman Fyfe helped launch with Moon, Ecoya's Geoff Ross, winemaker Sir George Fistonich and others. The plan is to convince New Zealand to run harder in the green race.

Fyfe acknowledged that Pure Advantage has had less cut-through than hoped.

"Not that any of us thought it was going to be an easy pathway, but around the world . . . as the global financial crisis came along, it was amazing how quickly economic necessities distracted people from some of the environmental issues," he says.

"The impetus for change has definitely reduced - I've seen it - over the last four or five years."

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The founders are optimistic, he says.

"Below the radar screen the power and influence of the group is growing."

He is eager to stress that this is greenness at its most pragmatic, couched in the pursuit of profit and growth.

"I don't spend a lot of my time wringing my hands and debating what's causing climate change and what speed is the temperature going to rise," he says.

"Because by the time we work out what's really going to happen through all these models it will be too late."

At Air New Zealand he deemed it better to admit polluting and try to be the cleanest option available - denying it only turns customers off, he says. The view was not universally shared, he says.

"I remember sitting at on the stage countless times at international conferences all by myself arguing we shouldn't deny our impact on the climate, we should be focused on trying to minimise it, lined up against hordes of other airline CEOS saying ‘don't people realise airlines are only 2 per cent, we should be trying to divert attention onto agriculture or whatever'."

But: "We burn a lot of carbon fuel. No matter what we do with biofuels . . . we can do things to reduce the amount of carbon we produce but we are always going to produce carbon, at least in my lifetime."

He has a similar approach to brand New Zealand. Having spent the last seven years embedded in tourism, he believes we've undervalued the profitability of going green, especially by embracing environmentally friendly technology.

"I've always been an advocate of doing everything we can to substantiate that 100 pure NZ (campaign).

"If it's not real and not authentic you can only live on borrowed time for so long before you're found out."

Fyfe was only briefly in Auckland on a short stopover between the US and South Africa to scoop up more accolades - a lifetime achievement gong from CIO magazine for his technological innovations at Air NZ and a Kea World Class New Zealand award in the new thinking category.

Last year's CIO winner was Sir Ralph Norris, a fellow former banker and Fyfe's predecessor at Air NZ - and the man who pulled him from a brief stint as a home dad for a job as airline chief information officer.

Norris knew Fyfe was not an IT guy but it seemed like a good way to get him on board. One of the Fyfe's first big calls - one he remains proud of - was bringing a screeching halt to a $260m upgrade of the airline's reservation system. Had the project gone ahead, Air NZ would now be using an internationally-hosted reservation system shared with other airlines and it could never have introduced major changes such as automatic check-in counters and baggage handling.

"That's why ultimately our key competitors weren't able to follow that innovation for three to five years," he says.

These days he is just an airline punter, albeit one with the cachet to pop his head round the door and casually say hello to the pilots. At his international industry farewell party, important chief executives of major airlines took the stage one by one and pulled down their trousers, revealing a range of joke Fyfe-branded underwear.

It was a poke at his reputation for stripping down to reveal a buff physique, and they thought he might like to launch his own range, a la Elle McPherson.

The maiden run of Fyfe-branded boxers featured a woven pattern around the waist band and sported little korus. He got to keep them. Whether he wanted them is a different story.

"I've got a cupboard full of the things now and I'm not sure what to do with them."

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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