Icebreaker CEO Rob Fyfe on leading from the front in any business environment and taking on the competition

The critical success factors for business and ultimately for CIOs, is ensuring that a sufficient portion of your budget should be deployed to help you better understand gathering insights from your customers. Because ultimately they will be the source of your competitive advantage.

Rob Fyfe as undercover CEO is not really feasible here in New Zealand, but he does his own version of it.

The Icebreaker CEO has been helping the sales teams in stores locally and offshore, and has spent a week at the factory in Bangladesh that manufactures their products.

"I am talking directly to consumers, seeing how people wear our products and seeing what competitor products and garments our clothes are sitting beside in the stores.

“I love chatting directly with our customers, that feedback is valuable.”

Fyfe joined the outdoor clothing manufacturer two and a half years ago, following a nine-year stint as CEO of Air New Zealand.

Leaving the airline industry and moving to a new sector did not mean cutting back on work-related travel.

He says since he joined Icebreaker, he can spend up to four months a year visiting overseas markets.

Some customers recognise him when he is in the New Zealand stores.

But he says they get a lot of tourists shopping in their stores, who would not necessarily know who he is.

But he reckons his most interesting customer meeting was in a company store in the United States.

“I was talking to the customer and I said I was from New Zealand,” says Fyfe. "The customer asked, 'where is New Zealand'?

“Then we got into a fascinating conversation about merino sheep and where they live, how we raised sheep up in the Alps and in high altitude.

"The customer had no idea where this superfine merino wool came from.”

“By the end of the day, I reckon if I was still working in Air New Zealand, I could have sold that customer an airline ticket to come to New Zealand. The customer was so intrigued and engaged by the story of New Zealand.”

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Insights from a CEO-plus: Rob Fyfe at a CIO Leaders' Luncheon

The technologists that I know who have been most effective, are the ones that have a deep understanding of customersRob Fyfe, Icebreaker

Together with Sir Ralph Norris, whom he succeeded as Air New Zealand CEO, Fyfe is also one of the New Zealand CIOs who have stepped up to the top role.

He was CIO for for less than a year before becoming general manager of airlines. When Sir Ralph Norris moved to Commonwealth Bank in Australia, Fyfe took on the top job.

“One thing I have always preached, is successful businesses are always incredibly rich in customer insight,” says Fyfe.

So how does he apply this to the CIO role?

“As a CIO, to add value to your organisations, you have to personally be very customer insight driven,” he explains.

“One of the things you always battle with as a CIO is you look at your priorities, where you are going to invest your resources.

“There is always a tendency for the organisation to drive you towards spending on ERP systems, financial systems and all sorts of things that make us feel better because we understand our business.

“But that does not necessarily mean we understand our customers.

“So I think the critical success factors for business and ultimately for CIOs, is ensuring that a sufficient portion of your budget should be deployed to help you better understand gathering insights from your customers. Because ultimately they will be the source of your competitive advantage.

“I think the information technology space is all about knowledge and learning, that it is a great stream for people to come through and develop their skill set to ultimately be business leaders.

“The challenge is to make sure that knowledge is constantly centred around customers and customer insight.

“That is when you find that your effectiveness and opportunities start to blossom,” he says. “The technologists that I know who have been most effective, are the ones that have a deep understanding of customers.”

Fyfe was on the board of Icebreaker before becoming its CEO. But he wrote in his LinkedIn profile how he became a convert to the brand long before that.

In 2011, he joined a group of Air New Zealand employees on a trek to Everest Base Camp. “We went from +27 degrees in Kathmandu to -20 degrees when we reached Base Camp and the Icebreaker layers performed so well I was hooked.”

He says when he announced his departure from Air New Zealand, Jeremy Moon, the founder and CEO of Icebreaker, was one of the first to offer him his next role.

Moon pioneered in the retail category of merino outdoor clothing. Today, Icebreaker products are sold in more than 43 countries and its products are stocked in around 5000 stores around the world.

Across industries

Fyfe shares his approach when moving to a new role.

“The first two or three years in a completely new industry where you don’t know much, all of the people around you know a whole lot more than you and you are constantly asking questions.

“And you are learning, you are exploring and it is often the time where you have the greatest insights. Because you are not conditioned by that industry.

“You have not grown up in it. Then some of the questions you ask start to reveal some insights that maybe people who have been immersed in the business for so long don’t see.”

“I have always been a deeply inquisitive person. And that period of exploration is almost like an adventure when you go to a new organisation and it is all new, and you are trying to figure out how it works.

“My background is in engineering and being involved in technology all the way through my career really, I love trying how things work and trying to figure out a better way.

''And I find that throughout my career, that is probably the strand that probably connects all my different roles together.''

The apparel industry, particularly outdoor apparel, is quite a conservative industry. The same is true for the airline industry, he says.

“I love going into a conservative industry and seeing whether I can mix it up a little bit, bring a new dynamic to the business and that is fun,” he says.

“Throughout my career, I charged and changed through different industries and I think that is when I am at my best, when I come in with my fresh eyes.”

“I believe the role of the effective leader is not about knowing the answers, it is knowing the right questions to ask.

“When I arrived here I was bombarding people with questions, 'why do we do it this way'?

“We want to take the company from rather than just being a merino wool company...We are trying to go deeply back into customer insights and saying, what can we learn from those customer insights?

''What those insights are telling us is people love us for our merino wool. But more importantly, they see us as an innovator, as being deeply committed to the environment and sustainability.

“They see us as a natural fibre company and they built a real sense of connection and trust with Icebreaker.

“Our question now is, 'where does this take us for the future?'”

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Fyfe talks about some of the areas they are considering or are doing research and development.

“There are some really cool natural fibres we are potentially exploring,” he states.

“Merino will always be our core business. But there are natural fibres that we could develop into fabrics, that could be as luxurious as merino fibres and allow us to offer technical solutions.''

He also talks about how they are responding to insights from customers across the globe.

“We are looking at their lifestyle and how they are wearing our products and what needs do our products meet.

“People are saying 'I want to wear Icebreaker when I go to work or just walking around town' as well as 'I want to wear Icebreaker when I go out into the countryside'. Or, wear Icebreaker in summer.

“Traditionally we were about warmth and insulation. Now we find people are wearing our garments in a much more versatile range of settings. So we thought, we should make sure we design with that purpose, with that intent in mind.''

“We had so many customers that come in and love the Icebreaker brand, and they said, 'can you make something lightweight for me for summer because I love to wear Icebreaker all year round but I find it warm to wear in summer'.”

“That was one of my very early insights. These insights helped me realise the importance of creating different fabrics to be used for summer.”

''We developed these new fabrics and our customers are just loving the opportunity to build out their Icebreaker range to a year-round range.”

Photo by Divina Paredes

I don’t actually spend a lot of time looking at companies within our sector. We are right at the front of the pack...Looking at your competitor can be a distraction that keeps you connected to the status quoRob Fyfe, Icebreaker

Competitors and distractions

He smiles when asked if he ever plays the role of ‘undercover boss’ when he is overseas, and occasionally, in local stores.

“When I am overseas, I walk into our stores, go into our competitor stores. I often just browse around and observe. I am always dressed casually, I wear a beanie and walk around and just see what the dynamic is.

“It is partly seeing how our teams interact with our customers, equally, and importantly, it's just watching and observing how customers interact with our products. What colours do people gravitate to? What are products that people not even connect with or engage with? Watching that and seeing that dynamic of what is going on is so insightful. Far more insightful than just looking at sales data.”

“I usually spend half of my time out of the office. I go to the United States, Europe and spend a little bit of time in Asia as well,” he says.

“To be honest, I am more interested in going into other stores where customers have a choice between buying our products or other products and seeing how they move.”

Recently, he went to a store in Germany that sells Icebreaker products and those of competitors.

“I don't understand the language, but I wanted to watch the sales process.''

In that particular store, the salespeople were selling to people on how luxurious the merino fibre was. To do this, they had a little box of really fine merino wool before it had even been woven. They get the customers to feel the wool and then ask them to touch a shirt made of synthetic material.

"In that store, a merino shirt was twice as expensive as a synthetic T-shirt. So you could see how they were justifying to people why they should be buying Icebreaker.

“I talked to one of the sales staff afterwards who could speak English and they said the challenge was they just have to get someone to try it on. They know that when they try it on, it would feel lovely they would not be able to take it off."

He talks about some of the ways technology is transforming their business.

''First, we had a straightforward level of growth of e-commerce. If you have got some Icebreaker garment and you know the sizing that suits you and you gain confidence on the brand, then you will just happily purchase online rather than go to a store,'' he says.

Social media is huge for Icebreaker.

“We are a premium brand. So people want to connect as much to the story of Icebreaker, as they are to products and sales.

''Social media gives us a rich storytelling platform for our business and it is particularly important for Icebreaker. It allows us to track and demonstrate our sustainability credentials. They can see what is going on through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and so on,'' he states.

''But the big heart of technology is the amount of data in the CRM we are now collating in relation to our customers.

''Traditionally we have been a product centric business,” he states.

“We are rebuilding a lot of our technology at the moment to be very much customer centric.”

''We have a lot of our products sold through third party retailers, so we do not necessarily have a direct relationship with the consumer. So that presents a set of direct challenges as well,'' Fyfe says.

“A lot of our third party retailers will share a lot of information with us. So the key there is making sure you have good information interfaces that will show the information, that becomes absolutely critical.”

Having a seat in other company boards gives him a broad perspective.

“I am on the board of [jeweller]) Michael Hill. They are great retailers and I have learned a lot from them," he states.

''I am involved with Craggy Range wines as a strategic advisor. Likewise, we are taking a New Zealand branded product and very much selling that to the global stage, predominantly to the Northern Hemisphere."

Fyfe is also on the board of Antarctica New Zealand.

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6 digital transformation success stories