Relishing the challenge of change in jobs

New Skyline Enterprises chief executive Geoff McDonald. Photo: Philip Chandler
New Skyline Enterprises chief executive Geoff McDonald. Photo: Philip Chandler
How does someone who has spent most of their working life in pharmaceuticals end up running a Queenstown-based tourism business? Skyline Enterprises chief executive Geoff McDonald discusses his job switch with Philip Chandler ahead of the 50th anniversary of Skyline Queenstown’s gondola, which was yesterday.

After handling big management roles in global healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline, Geoff McDonald was at a crossroads earlier this year.

He had stretched a three-year contract running GSK’s $650million Australian business into five years, but had a "real hankering to get into a smaller, more dynamic business environment".

"With a large multinational — we had 150,000 people around the world, £28 billion turnover — it just started to get so difficult to get stuff done."

Out of the blue, the New Zealand-born 55-year-old, who had more than 20 years in the game, was contacted by a headhunter recruiting a chief executive for Queenstown-based Skyline Enterprises.

"It was quite a lengthy process.

"For me, what was critical was the people, the values of the organisation, the culture.

"I liked the very hands-on involvement by the board, in a positive way. I was told it had a very Southland-type approach, and that appealed.

"I just thought, ‘this feels OK’, so I took the punt and here we are."

Mr McDonald even sees a connection between his old job and new one heading a diverse tourism, property and casino company.‘‘In GSK, our division was helping people to feel better, do more and live longer.

"To see people’s smiles when they come down that luge or they look at that view up there, you’re involved in something that’s giving people a positive experience.‘‘In my mind, it’s still involved in healthcare."

Asked what he was bringing to bear on Skyline, five months in, he talked capability-building and systems.

"A lot of the businesses are very independent silos with quite a thin layer of corporate involvement.

"As we’ve grown and gotten bigger, we need to start thinking about systems and processes and putting a bit more infrastructure in.

"But probably the big thing for me is just capability-building.

"We’ve got fantastic people — a lot have grown up from frontline customer positions into senior roles — but in a large company that’s got a $200million-odd turnover and is growing pretty rapidly, we need to make sure we’re developing and coaching people, rather than just relying on the skills they’ve developed in the job.

"The challenge is how to make sure that Skyline stays agile and grows, but has just enough corporate structure to enable that growth."

Mr McDonald’s is also overseeing new projects such as further luge expansion overseas, a rejig of Queenstown’s O’Connells Shopping Centre, the Franz Josef Glacier gondola project and, especially, Skyline Queenstown’s $100million gondola redevelopment.

"The project on the hill is a big beast, not just the scale of it, but the fact you’re doing it on the side of a cliff.

"There is a complexity of consenting to work through — I hadn’t had a huge amount of experience with that."

A former Ironman competitor, Mr McDonald said living and working in Queenstown was the icing on the cake.

"For me, it was first and foremost about the job and the challenge, but being able to come here and do it is a bit of dream, really."

He will be seeing much more of the outdoors as he trains for the Motatapu Xterra triathlon, between Wanaka and Arrowtown, which will be held next March.

He was not missing his old job.

"I’m loving being in a company where you can make things happen, and happen quite quickly."

"They’ve still got quite an entrepreneurial spirit plus a bit of that Kiwi ‘let’s give it a go’."

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