Rob Fyfe on why business design is about personality, story telling and instilling realness

When it comes to creating the winning recipe for 2010’s Airline’s of the Year, forget wafty organisational jargon like ‘company mission statements’, ‘values’, and ‘strategic visions’.  According to Air New Zealand’s chief executive Rob Fyfe— when speaking at the recent NZTE Better By Design CEO summit—designing  and running a world class airline is all about personality, creating stories and instilling a realness and authenticity into business. 

From an airline practically hung by its heels in 2002—encumbered with an outdated fleet, an obsolete business model and employee and national morale at an all time low—Air New Zealand has transformed to become a world-class airline with a host of awards, a sassy brand and an ever-growing following. Clearly the airline is doing something right in the organisational design and innovation space . 

When reflecting on what Air NZ had to offer then, Fyfe is the first to admit the airline had close to nothing. “There were no smiling people—in fact, it was hard to even detect a pulse” . Combined with the government’s massive bail out, Fyfe recalls the only thing the airline really had left (by default) was its “New Zealandness”. So in an industry where 70 percent of revenue is generated from overseas travellers travelling to or returning to New Zealand, Fyfe did something interesting. He ignored the eye-glazing balance sheets, ROIs and bottom line (much to the apprehension of the board which had just appointed him). Instead, he went on a mission to discover what it was about “New Zealandness” that kept its customers coming back to Godzone, and worked from there.   

What the company found was that instead of New Zealand’s typical  clean and green image, the key underpinning themes driving visitors to return to New Zealand were actually based on the national culture—the willingness of New Zealanders to share their country with visitors and their “can do” attitude. Fyfe decided to revive the dying airline by creating a personality and design ethos. He did this by leveraging the  archetypal “Inn Zed” culture  into every facet of his organisation. It’s a strategy that—in hindsight—seems almost a no-brainer.   

“There’s no one recipe, but you need personality and X factor. Be open and honest with it—don’t be afraid to express your own unique personality”. 

Fyfe made sure that no matter where his customers were in the world, they got a piece of the Kiwi personality and “New Zealandness” through their interaction with Air New Zealand—from when they purchase their tickets, right through to stepping off the plane. “We infuse this personality into all roles of the business, and then give our people the freedom to bring that personality to life in their own unique way.” Unique is an understatement. Think of the staff members (including Fyfe himself) dressed only in body paint and starring in the airline’s  in-flight safety videos. Then there’s the sky couches, suggesting passengers join the mile-high club. And now  there’s Rico, the controversial furry company mascot alluding to loving Kiwi bitches and beating off the track. Love him or hate him, he gets people talking—and is putting more bums on seats. 

While Fyfe may argue it’s all about injecting authenticity and personality into the brand, one might also ask whether the personality of the head cheese himself also has something to do with Air NZ’s winning success formula? Fyfe’s demeanour is almost the perfect embodiment of the laid back, approachable and genuine personality his airline hedges its success on. Be it raving reviews or scathing complaints from disgruntled customers, Fyfe is known for personally replying to every email that enters his inbox from his customers—even those loaded with expletives that attack the airline for being more backwards than the world’s worst developing nations. He has no qualms in regularly sharing these with his staff because it helps ensure they never rest on their laurels. Fyfe walks the talk too. In response to an email from an angry customer who suggested Air New Zealand’s service was “slower than a snake’s scrotum” and offered to bet the CEO a $500 of bottle of his finest French wine that his next two Air New Zealand flights would be delayed, Fyfe made sure the whole airline was on alert to ensure no flights would be delayed. He even had standby planes waiting on the tarmac in case any technical problems arose. Needless to say Fyfe won the bet, received a $500 bottle of French vino (which he auctioned for a good cause) and transformed a once peeved customer to a diehard fan. 

There’s no time for ego either. Fyfe is just one of us. On the odd occasion when customers have been stuck on the tarmac during flight delays, he’s been known to respond to email requests from economy class passengers asking if he could throw a few beers their way, by personally delivering ice cold beers to the passengers.  Fyfe also makes no bones about the fact that as an airline, Air New Zealand isn’t perfect and he’s comfortable about  taking risks that might not always deliver sky-high results. “We’ve made it OK to make mistakes in terms of innovating in the business”. 

Fyfe has essentially transformed an airline on the brink of bankruptcy  to being the most successful, creative and most innovative airlines around. “It’s about knowing that we can be New Zealand and world class. We’re not trying to be anyone else.”

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