Icebreaker leadership change

First published in Fairfax NZ Business 4 June 2014

A change in senior leadership in any company is an interesting time and throws up all kinds of scenarios and questions about what the long term plans are.

For staff, stakeholders and others close to the action leaderships change can be unsettling, exciting and challenging. And it makes change management specialists jump for joy. In a private company, when the founder steps aside that’s a whole other ball game.

The big news in New Zealand last week was Rob Fyfe’s appointment as new CEO of Icebreaker. As Jeremy Moon takes a step back from the company he founded in 1994, for the first time in the brand’s history someone else can call the big shots.

Icebreaker is now over twenty years old and because retail years are like dog years, Icebreaker is really like a turn-of-the-century New Zealand icon.

Given that most retail brands are now gasping for air and being pushed under by the international fast fashion guys, it was no easy task for Icebreaker to survive. Let alone double in sales every year. Moon’s achievements as a business leader are extraordinary. As a marketer, I’m totally impressed at how Moon created Icebreaker by putting half the seed capital towards creating a brand and a story.

According to legend (or at least some old newspaper interviews), Moon sat down with Brian Richards of Design Works and developed a whole narrative and creative backbone to Icebreaker, months prior to any product being made.

He made many big calls early in the game. Recognising farmer Brian Brackenbridge’s merino products had far greater potential; sourcing merino direct from growers, paying them a premium for it and having that transparency in the supply chain; positioning Icebreaker differently in various international markets; entering the US and Europe before going into Australia; postponing China stores, while manufacturing in China. (That last point is always controversial.)

It’s not an accident when someone takes a $100k company and transforms it into a $200 million one.

So where to now?

The streets are littered with companies founded on the passionate personal ideals of the men and women who created them; only to have lost their way when new management came in. (Must not mention Pumpkin Patch again. Must not mention Pumpkin Patch again.) Then every so often there are true business gems, those great companies that become even greater when new leaders take the reigns.

Moon is still young (surely that’s a song), so Fyfe must be there with a particular set of skills and strategy in mind. Perhaps going for China, brand building on a much bigger international scale, or the obvious first thought: taking it public. Maybe Moon has a new business idea – entrepreneurs of his calibre rarely sit idle.

At least for now it looks like Moon feels his energy and skills are better suited to the creative side of Icebreaker and he must feel he has taken the business as far as he can being CEO.

Time will tell if the Icebreaker brand will outlast the founder’s leadership. Thus far that narrative Moon created with Richards has been a successful and emotive driver to buy. It has even softened the impact of manufacture and supply of merino from outside New Zealand.

As the brand grows and management requires ever-greater returns, will the Icebreaker story – effectively Jeremy Moon’s story – still retain its founding principles without its Founding Principal?

Right now Moon continues to play an active part as Executive Chairman. With Rob Fyfe driving it, this $200 million Icebreaker is setting off on a fascinating new journey.