BY LYNDA PAPESCH
Piloting Nelson Airport into the future
Nelson Airport plays a leading role in the region’s economy and is gearing up for even greater success with a major revamp. Lynda Papesch talks to the man at the controls about his past, the present and the future.
Sitting in his new (temporary) office, Rob Evans looks out across the Nelson Airport. He sees not what it is now, but what it will become.
The airport’s future is all about vision, and Rob as CEO is the man shaping and leading that vision. Still relatively new to the Nelson region, he is, however, no stranger to airports, nor to injecting commercial impetus into existing businesses.
He remembers a childhood serenaded by aircraft landing and taking off. “My grandmother lived above the airport in Strathmore and I could hear the Fokker Friendships on the runway; later I was fortunate to travel in the 1980s on DC10s and DC8s.”
Whether or not his early experiences sowed the kernel of a career path is unknown, yet at the age of 48 Rob now pilots a thriving company undeniably dependent on the successors of those early aircraft he boarded.
These days it’s usually Air Nelson’s turboprop Bombardier Q300s and Mt Cook ATRs coming and going under his watchful eye, along with an increasing number of Jetstar Q300 aircraft and private jets. Naturally, along with the planes come the people – locals, businessmen and women, friends and families and loads of tourists – the vehicles and more.
People and business he knows about. A born and bred Wellingtonian, Rob’s the youngest of seven children. Growing up in the capital’s eastern suburbs, he left school and set up his own house-painting business. “I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. I wasn’t overly interested in study or university; I just wanted to work and earn a wage.”
At 21, he headed off on his big OE, initially to summer camp in the USA for two months then on to England for four years. “I enjoyed myself, working in telecommunications and data cabling, playing rugby and travelling around Europe.”
On his return to New Zealand, Rob took on a waterfront property management role for Wellington-based Willis Bond & Co, before signing on as a property consultant for Jones Lang Lasalle.
He met his wife Andrea in Wellington; they married in 2002 and now have four children aged 23, 22, 15 and 13.
The year 2004 marked Rob’s entry into the aviation industry when he was offered a role at Wellington Airport as its property and development manager. For two years he juggled the various aspects of the role, including the leasing of the retail park at Lyall Bay, car parking and the property management portfolio.
Then came a ‘bolt out of the blue’. Rob fielded a phone call from a recruitment agency seeking a commercial manager for Cairns Airport in Australia. “My mother was born in Cairns so I was open to the opportunity. For her it was almost like I was returning home even though she had lived in Wellington most of her life.”
The family arrived in Cairns in mid-July 2006, and spent almost seven years there with Rob as commercial manager for both Cairns and Mackay airports. During that time more than $A250 million was invested in airport redevelopment work, mainly in terminal upgrades, improving the commercial property, retail and car parking aspects of the business. His last three years there also included aeronautical business development which involved airline marketing and nurturing relationships to grow airlines and passenger numbers into Cairns and Mackay, or ‘chasing airline tails’ as Rob describes it.
He sees many similarities between the Cairns and Nelson scenarios. “Cairns has a high proportion of tourists and so does Nelson. Their markets are similar, both offer strong tourism products and services, and both are slightly isolated geographically.
“Nelson, to its advantage, has numerous strong support industries such as horticulture, fishing and forestry, which Cairns did not really have. And Nelson has a much more robust, sustainable market from an airlines perspective.”
Rob had always planned on returning to New Zealand and once he’d accomplished what he wanted, the timing was right. The family returned to Wellington where Rob became regional business manager for The Property Group, but soon found he missed the smell of aviation fuel. A friend saw the advertisement for Nelson Airport CEO and suggested he apply.
Several aspects of the job appealed: The opportunity to run an airport, being part of the re-development, and the opportunity to live in such a beautiful region.
“I’d passed through Nelson once from Karamea 25 years earlier on my way to the Picton ferry. Coming for the job interview was my second visit.”
That visit proved successful and Rob took over as CEO in February 2015. “The role was a very attractive one to the entrepreneurial side of me, and the regional attributes made it an easy decision when I was offered the job.”
Ironically, in this day and age where many employers set a benchmark including a degree of some sort, Rob has no formal qualifications and no letters after his name. “I’ve never felt an overwhelming desire to study, I have developed my skills through work and life experiences.”
He’s quick to pat himself on the back. “To be offered the role of CEO of a busy airport is a good personal milestone and one that I am proud of, given I have no formal qualification. That said, hiring in my circumstances is not so common these days so I do encourage young people to obtain a qualification or a trade.”
Heading his hit list has been the set up of a strong platform for future growth of the region and to help ensure the longevity of regional development. How to grow Nelson Airport, its terminal, car parking and passenger throughput is one step, along with developing an ongoing (and potentially expanding) commercial engineering and maintenance, helicopter and general aviation environment.
Part two is giving it a good identity. Rob and his team have already rebranded the business and are gradually getting across the message that it is an important piece of infrastructure in the community, plus a critical link to other parts of New Zealand … especially the main centres.
“From a business perspective, our two biggest markets are Auckland and Wellington, both growing markets for aviation access. Christchurch is also now performing very strongly.”
He adds that, in his view, Nelson is important geographically for airline access in connecting people, businesses and families throughout New Zealand.
Now past two years in the role, he has completed the long-term master plan, rebranded the airport business and doubled staff resources including taking on a sales and marketing manager, a commercial manager and a terminal supervisor, as well as other support staff.
Equally important is an improvement in financial performance, increasing revenue from $5.2 million to $8.3 million in the same two years.
As for the future … there’s more to come. Landing charges have been agreed with airlines for the next five years, work will soon start on the new terminal, and 250 new car parks have been established to help the transition from old to new.
A separate project, but being done at the same time as the terminal re-development, is a re-design of the airport apron for aircraft parking (future growth), and a significant upgrade of the taxiways.
“A whole range of people want to do business at the airport so we need to provide the infrastructure for it to happen, taking into account everything from public transport to VIPs and taxis, private vehicles, rental cars, limos and buses.”
Rob says that between 200-300 people already use the airport car park daily and that will continue to increase. Passenger numbers have jumped from around 740,000 when he took over to a forecasted million plus this year, making Nelson arguably the busiest regional domestic airport in New Zealand.
Airport aircraft traffic has increased by around 25 percent since Jetstar added Nelson to its schedule two years ago, and there’s also been an upsurge in aircraft maintenance carried out. Both aspects of the business are expected to continue to grow.
“We already work with Air New Zealand on property and infrastructure planning. Our long-term plan outlines how Air New Zealand can expand its aircraft maintenance business, servicing more planes for the likes of Air Caledonia and Virgin Airlines currently being serviced at the airport.
“The end result will be a base for use as an export business, servicing turbo-prop planes from all over world.”
With all of that going on, Rob still finds time to enjoy a work/leisure balance, although he admits it is hard sometimes. He’s already set about exploring the region with a bit of cycling now and then, a few visits to various wineries, summer fun and winter rugby.
A long-time Marist supporter – he was on the Marist St Pats Wellington committee for 10 years and chairman in 2014 before moving to Nelson – Rob spends many of his weekends supporting the cause in winter, running up and down the sidelines with water bottles.
As for the job, it’s more than what he expected and he is relishing the leadership role. “I enjoy working with people, working towards a common goal.
“You could say I am a generalist. I encourage people, try to get the best advice and look for the best result. And I have some very good mentors, family and friends to keep me in line.”