By Laura Hall
Rob Fyfe has a renowned reputation as a world class CEO and is one of the best known names in New Zealand business; but he’s anything other than your stereotypical boss.
He regularly wears jeans and a t-shirt to work, he hasn’t had an office in more than
nine years and outright rejects workplace hierarchy systems.
This defiance to conform to traditional norms that come with management roles goes some way towards making him the success he is today and perhaps it’s this quality all great leaders exhibit in one form or another.
His rise to fame is a well -known story. It began with him becoming Air New Zealand CEO in 2005 during a time when the company had been bailed out by the government; the planes were old, the employees had lost confidence in the brand and customer numbers were dwindling.
It is this legendary turnaround he is renowned for; firstly with mass employee cuts and secondly by breathing new life and charisma into the company with his trademark spark. But since his departure from Air New Zealand in 2012 he has been largely off the radar; until now.
Back in the saddle
You could be forgiven for thinking Rob had gone into retirement; parked up on a tropical beach living off his $2.6 million Air New Zealand salary. But he says he was taking a much needed pit stop while carefully planning his next assault on the business world.
After leaving the company job offers swiftly began to fly in. He had a number of large overseas airline companies, the majority from Australia and Asia, approaching him offering CEO and consulting roles. But he says that wasn’t surprising, casually shaking off the invitations many business people would strive their whole careers for.
He explains it was a good chance to stop and think about what is really important to him. “I actually had no desire to work in another airline job. If I had a desire to keep working in that industry I would have stuck at Air New Zealand because I still really love that company.”
His time out helped him realise the strong devotion he has to New Zealand and what that meant for his career moving forward.
“The reason I was able to turn Air New Zealand around was because I’ve got this deep sense of empathy and connection with the New Zealand spirit. I realised if I was going to run an airline in Asia, it would be a real challenge because I wouldn’t be able to work intuitively, I wouldn’t be able to connect with the culture and I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the same sense of passion in a foreign language.
“So I actually made a conscious decision to say my future is in New Zealand – that’s where I want to make a difference and that’s what I am passionate about.”
He began looking for companies with their roots invested in New Zealand, citing two criteria the company needed to meet in order to be a viable prospect.
Firstly, it had to have the potential to be a world class company working on a global scale while still embracing the New Zealand culture. Secondly, he was looking for a company which had a strong stance on remaining New Zealand owned and operated, now and into the future.
While there are a lot of up and coming New Zealand companies, he says many of their mindsets are ‘how do I grow this company and sell it to an offshore multinational’.
“For me it’s not about making a buck; I didn’t want to build something to have it sold offshore. I want to create a company that is an enduring legacy for New Zealand – a company which represents the spirit, personality and character of New Zealanders.”
After 18 months of scouring the country for a business that fitted his wish list, there was only one company that ticked all the boxes – Icebreaker.
Handing over the reins
The founder of the merino outdoor clothing company is Jeremy Moon; the company is his life project, establishing it in 1994 at just 25.
He is not building it to sell and he sees himself as always being the majority shareholder are attributes that immediately flipped a switch for Rob. “I thought ‘wow that is exactly what I want’.”
In the early days Jeremy was involved with all of the product design, but as the company grew his attention was being drawn away from design as the complexities of running a larger company became ever more demanding.
He arrived at a point where he realised his strengths firmly lie in the creative department and the company needed a strong, business minded leader – someone who could take the company to the next phase of growth.
It was perfect timing for Rob and in June 2014 he officially took up the reins as Icebreaker CEO, while Jeremy moved into the roles of creative director and chairman.
With Rob now at the helm Icebreaker should be preparing to buckle up. Because if Rob’s track record is anything to go by the company’s in for a wild ride.
“This is a whole new industry for me which is really exciting. I love to learn, I’m drawn to new challenges and getting out of my comfort zone to explore new places and things I haven’t done before and this role offers those opportunities.”
In just over four months he has quickly got up to speed, travelling to Icebreaker stores in Germany, France, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Canada and America to meet customers and staff on the shop floor. And, in true Rob Fyfe fashion, he has made a lot of changes to the leadership team, disestablishing some jobs and appointing new roles.
The retail market may be a new industry for Rob, but the principles of business management are universal, making him a formidable asset for Icebreaker.
A five year plan for the company is already well in the making, the exact details of which are not yet ready to be divulged, but the gist of it aims to further propel Icebreaker onto the global stage.
“In order to be successful in the competitive outdoor apparel industry we need to make the Icebreaker name famous around the world; we will do that using the New Zealand brand.
“New Zealand’s image is our greatest asset; the brand conjures up powerful visual imagery of picturesque landscapes and a trust worthy name worldwide.”
Six years ago the company was selling $60 million worth of clothing a year with a majority of those sales in New Zealand and Australia. This year it will sell $200 million with 80 percent sold in the Northern Hemisphere.
But despite growth in the international market, Rob says “outside of New Zealand we are still undiscovered… most people have never heard of us.
“We’ve got a really big challenge to project our brand into the foreign markets and build brand awareness. It’s a tough challenge because we have very limited resources and we are competing against really big brands which dominate their home markets.”
Not one to back down from a challenge, he is facing it head on. “We are opening our fifth store in Canada in December and we currently have eight stores in the USA, so by the end of the year we will have 13 stores in North America.” A gutsy investment considering most Americans have never heard of them.
So what makes him such an accomplished expert at business management?
His past offers some clues. He studied engineering at the University of Canterbury graduating with honours. Engineering trained him to master problem solving using methods and systems to find a positive outcome.
He worked as an engineer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, before growing tired and moving to Postbank. He eventually became Postbank manager and from there moved through various general manager roles including the Bank of New Zealand, National Australia Bank group and Telecom.
Despite Rob’s hugely successful career he confesses he never actually had a plan. “I took on new jobs because they looked really exciting and interesting and when I felt like I’d exhausted all of the growth opportunities, I’d move on.”
It’s fair to say his success can’t be credited to his career planning, but it’s obvious from the way he speaks and interacts with his staff that his charming, charismatic personality is a major ingredient to his winning formula.
But people won’t be getting their hands on this winning recipe for success anytime soon because it hasn’t come from a text book. “People ask me my formulae for success and I often have to apologise, because I don’t have a complicated method – it’s just about caring.”
The foundations for his business success are centred on strong mutual relationships with his employees and the ability to inspire staff to feel enthusiastic about their work.
He says he rarely communicates through text because, truthfully, he is a very slow reader. He prefers a verbal hands-on leadership style which focusses on speaking face to face with all of his team mates.
“If you put another CEO in my chair and they looked at all of the reports, they’d largely make the same decisions that I’d make. The thing that makes a company different and what success is ultimately founded on is my ability to inspire people to come to work, make a difference and be the best they can be.”
How he inspires his employees involves some expected and some unexpected techniques. Rob is well-known for getting out and about serving customers and was often seen on aircrafts serving tea and coffee at Air New Zealand.
“I’ve spent plenty of time out and about in stores and chatting to customers since joining Icebreaker. I can’t wait to get out and spend some time serving on the shop floor. I haven’t had my own office in the last nine years because I don’t like being closed off – it’s all about being accessible and having open and free communication.
“I come to work at least three to fours days a week in jeans and a t-shirt; it’s not about being disrespectful towards suits, but being approachable to everyone. I don’t work on a pedestal, you have to work along side people, that’s the first step in gaining their support and sense of connection and purpose with the company.
And lastly he says you can’t be afraid to have a personality. “You have to be real, not just a gimmick.”
It is not a complicated method for success, but it works like a charm, which is why Rob is and will continue to be one of the best known names in the business.