Former Air NZ CEO Christopher Luxon showed 'enormous' intellectual capability but rarely met with 'ordinary workers'

Breakfast
It is reported that either Chris Luxon or Simon Bridges is expected to take over the National Party leadership.

Much like his rise within the National Party, Christopher Luxon took just over a year to reach the top at Air New Zealand.

But the newly minted Opposition leader has received both praise and criticism for his leadership at the national carrier.

The rookie MP has just been named leader of the National Party, a year after entering politics on the back of securing the Botany electorate in the 2020 general election.

Before politics, Luxon spent seven years as chief executive of Air New Zealand, taking over the reins from Rob Fyfe at the end of 2012.

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Luxon, 51, was born in Christchurch in 1970. His mother was a psychotherapist and his father was a sales executive for Johnson & Johnson.

He and his family moved to Auckland when he was 7, but at age 15 Luxon returned to Christchurch where he later studied at the University of Canterbury, graduating with a master’s degree in commerce majoring in business administration.

Christopher Luxon spent seven years as chief executive of Air New Zealand.
John Anthony/Stuff
Christopher Luxon spent seven years as chief executive of Air New Zealand.

He was later recruited into the management trainee programme at Unilever, one of the world's largest multinational consumer packaged goods firms. He would spend the next 18 years working for Unilever in New Zealand and around the globe.

He finished his time with the company based in Toronto as president and chief executive of Unilever Canada.

In 2011, Luxon, having just turned 40, returned to New Zealand to the role of group general manager of international airline at Air New Zealand.

The following year he was appointed chief executive.

Under his leadership, Air New Zealand signed numerous code-share agreements and alliance deals and opened a bunch of new international routes.

As profits soared to record levels, helped by a booming tourism industry, Air New Zealand placed orders for the latest and greatest aircraft, upgraded its Koru lounges and was named Australia's most trusted brand several years in a row.

The success of the company was reflected in Luxon’s whopping pay packet. In 2018, he was the highest paid chief executive of all listed companies, earning more than $4 million a year.

But it wasn’t all clear skies, with Luxon making the unpopular decision in 2014 to axe seven economically unsustainable regional routes. The airline also later stopped flying to Kapiti.

Then there were the public relations disasters of the Rolls-Royce engine issues and industrial action that had threatened to ruin Christmas.

Towards the end of his time at the airline, Luxon worked alongside former National Party leader and former prime minister Sir John Key when in 2017 Key was named an Air New Zealand director before resigning in 2019.

In 2018, Luxon was named chairman of a newly formed Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council to advise Jacinda Ardern on how to supercharge the New Zealand economy.

But it was short-lived, with Luxon resigning from Air New Zealand in September 2019, just three months before the pandemic decimated the aviation industry.

Botany MP Christopher Luxon has been named leader of the Opposition.
MARK TAYLOR/Stuff
Botany MP Christopher Luxon has been named leader of the Opposition.

MediaWorks chief executive Cam Wallace, a former Air New Zealand executive who worked closely with Luxon for seven years, said he was an exceptionally hard and dedicated worker.

“He’s got massive commitment to the task.

“He’s quite attuned to the values of modern New Zealand,” Wallace said.

He described Luxon as an “inspirational leader”.

The two used to travel together often and would regularly discuss global and local politics.

Wallace said Luxon used to give him a hard time about his desire for New Zealand to become a republic.

Aviation consultant Irene King said Luxon had a long pedigree of global leadership.

“He's very familiar working on the international stage.”

Luxon had beaten some “stellar candidates” in being named Air New Zealand chief executive, demonstrating that Fyfe and Air New Zealand’s board of directors at the time clearly rated him very highly, she said.

Fyfe’s extroverted leadership style was very different to Luxon’s more conservative approach, which did not necessarily go down well with some personalities within Air New Zealand who “love drama”, she said.

“He just was not into drama.”

She said Luxon showed “an enormous amount of intellectual capability” and was the epitome of what a chief executive should be.

There was often disparaging commentary about his leadership style that she felt was not warranted.

Luxon inherited an airline with a strong balance sheet and “a dream team” of executives around him, and he made the most of it, she said.

He also had a period of consistent growth with no “nasty black swan events” to deal with.

“He had the best circumstances that I have ever seen.”

Christopher Luxon has taken over as National Party leader after the ousting of Judith Collins.
ELLA BATES-HERMANS/Stuff
Christopher Luxon has taken over as National Party leader after the ousting of Judith Collins.

But even at the best of times, Air New Zealand was “a bloody tough business to run”, she said.

E tū head of aviation Savage said Luxon had a clear vision for Air New Zealand and capitalised on the worldwide boom in aviation to expand and reach record profits.

He was a big part of setting up high-performance engagement at the airline with the staff’s unions but rarely attended the monthly meetings.

“He very rarely attended the monthly leadership meetings between union and company and was not close to the problems the unions and company were trying to sort out.”

Luxon rarely met directly with the unions in general and didn’t connect in person very often with staff, he said.

“He was not a CEO who spent a lot of time with ordinary workers.”

Luxon’s approach to high performance was “all too often style over substance and was consistently under-resourced”.

“That lack of support was a big part of what led it to falter when it was needed most.”

Whether he would be successful as leader of the National Party would depend on how connected he was with the concerns of everyday New Zealanders, he said.

New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association president Andrew Ridling said Luxon was a good communicator, forward-thinking and “super smart”.

From a union perspective, he was always approachable, he said.

“He certainly met with me any time I wanted to meet with him.”

When Luxon was on board an Air New Zealand flight, he would meet with pilots in the flight deck, he said.

“He certainly made the effort with us.”

He said Luxon was keen to build relationships with the union rather than “banging heads”, he said.

National MP Christopher Luxon hits back at critics of Christians in public life in his maiden statement in Parliament.

When Luxon gave his maiden speech in Parliament this year, he gave an insight into who he is and what he wants to achieve in his role as an MP.

During that speech, Luxon defended his faith, celebrated his electorate of Botany and extolled the virtue of centre-Right political beliefs.

“It seems it has become acceptable to stereotype those who have a Christian faith in public life as being ‘extreme’, so I will say a little about my Christian faith. It has anchored me, given my life purpose and shaped my values, and it puts me in the context of something bigger than myself,” he told Parliament in March.

“My faith is personal to me. It is not in itself a political agenda,” he said at the time.

He also spoke of his experience in business and his former role as the head of the country’s national airline that pointed to his ability to get things done.

“I understand, of course, that a country is not a company. However, New Zealanders look to the government to get things done. It’s not good enough saying you’re going to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but not do it.”

On National’s website, Luxon’s page states that he was born in Christchurch but was raised in Auckland, and his electorate of Botany is part of who he is.

“I lived here growing up, attended local schools, and the hard-working, middle-class values that were instilled in me then are my values today.”

He has been the National Party spokesman for land information, local government, research, science and manufacturing, and is an associate spokesman for transport.

He is married and has two children.