Luxon: NZ faces unprecedented challenges

There’s a General Election towards the end of the year and Christopher Luxon has been selected to stand for National in the Botany seat. Nick Krause sat down with the former Air NZ CEO for a chat

Christopher Luxon’s first job was with the Times as a delivery boy. Times photo Wayne Martin.

Christopher Luxon meets at the Times office at around 12.45pm brandishing an 8-pack of sushi.

He’s not eaten anything since breakfast at around 4.30am.

The option of meeting at a cafe in Howick Village is dismissed (by me) as Luxon, who was only selected as the National Botany candidate for the 2020 election on November 4, is so well-recognised in these parts. And he still lives in Remuera.

He later shares his connection to this very blue district. He attended Cockle Bay Primary, Howick Intermediate and Saint Kentigern College. And he has a brother here and many former Air NZ colleagues.

We adjourn to our satellite office upstairs in Rice’s Mall where we remain undisturbed for an hour.

He politely holds off from even touching the sushi until I suggest he begins eating while I catch up on my note-taking.

The early morning rises are an integral part of his approach to the day, a routine he says he observed well before Air NZ. “I’m an early riser. I scan all the newspapers and 200+ emails a day. I have always needed to be organised,” he says.

“I’d be in the office usually around 7am and would usually be home for dinner at 8 and occasionally there’d be a few hours (working) at night…I like to work to a rhythm.”

It’s a rhythm that’s seen him elevate Air NZ – which has 12,500 employees globally – to one of the most respected brands in the country. It is also one of the most successful airlines in the world.

Luxon says he’s had a fascination for politics since he was 12 and has, for some time, devoted a year to focusing on world leaders. This year it’s Theodore Roosevelt. Before that it was Bobby Kennedy.

“I was attracted to his vision but he had a ruthlessness to his politics…. but he cared deeply about people.”

There was Jimmy Carter, a nuclear submariner, who after his presidency, came back to run his peanut farm.

“You learn something from leaders all the time. I read a lot and have done since I was a boy,” says Luxon, slowly but surely getting through his sushi.

The point? “Business and politics – there’s a lot of transferrable skills.”

He was 40 when he joined the national airline and became CEO at 41. He really is a high-flyer and he’s a problem solver. When he joined Air NZ, its international division was losing $2 million a week. How’s that for focus.

He was at global consumer goods company Unilever for 18 years, 16 years posted abroad and became CEO in 2008 when he was 37.

Transitioning from international business to politics though is something else surely at such a relatively young age. And he’s a rookie. The motivation for the conservative Christian has always been there.

“At 48 you get to a point (where you consider your position). It’s important that you give back if you have been successful,” Luxon says.

“I do fundamentally believe New Zealand faces these unprecedented challenges.”

As a business leader he has come to appreciate and comprehend much, including the impact of automation, working with Iwi, with mayors and councils, with tourism and property too.

“Economically, socially, environmentally, they’re really the changes that will affect New Zealanders over the next 15-20 years.”

He touches again on the transferrability of strategies and such from companies, businesses and industries as very capably bringing a diversity of perspectives to our parliament. “I’m going in with a broad perspective. Some of these principles are very similar.”

There’s been no shortage of unsolicited observations from all and sundry suggesting he won’t be able to cut the mustard…handle the jandal in Kiwi vernacular. “Do you think the rigours of the job (in politics) will be too much for you? I’ve been asked that a few times,” says Luxon.

But he reckons what he calls extreme global business has set him up well. One hundred hours a week. Being in Argentina on a Monday and Tuesday then Tokyo and London immediately after.  “The work was in multiple time zones – you’re playing 3-D chess,” he says.

Clearly, having highly-skilled crew helps. “I’ve always been a leader of a team of leaders. You get very organised with your time…you’ve also got to manage energy.”

Coping with invasive media, particularly with a family, must be off-putting? “The reality is our family is incredibly grounded; our children are incredibly independent.

“We do have to think about the civility of politics.”

He refers to Kiwi politicians who know each other well and who will engage in the cut-and-thrust in the house compared to a very different style employed abroad, particularly in the US where there is tremendous polarity. “There’s no naiveté however attacks should be around ideas rather than personalities,” says Luxon.

He’s getting right into the new job too with up to nine meetings a week including with the police, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, Abbess Manshin at the Fo Guang Shan Temple in Flat Bush, Botany business owners and GETBA (the Greater East Tamaki Business Association), the Multicultural Centre and Indian Business Association. “They’re pretty special people,” he says.

“I’m getting around seeing people doing amazing things.

“My job is to demonstrate that I understand Botany and that I represent them very well in Wellington.”

He underlines that by saying he doesn’t need the job, but wants to do it.

“It’s not what I do. Who I am is more important.”