Airport chairman backs CEO after senior staff quit

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A string of departures by Queenstown Airport senior staff is viewed as “regrettable” but the board chairman says he has full confidence in his chief executive.

Three top brass left in three months, including resignations on the same day in August of aeronautical general manager Simon Barr and corporate services general manager Simon Lange.

Two months earlier communication boss Nina Crawford resigned – she finished in September to take up a role with Telstra back in Brisbane where she has family ties. On top of those three, corporate services boss Karen Castiglione quit in September last year followed by finance assistant Tania Flight in February this year.

Some senior staff are understood by Mountain Scene to be critical of chief executive Scott Paterson’s leadership, communication style and aviation experience – but none were prepared to go on the record.

Asked yesterday if he felt he was the common denominator re­­garding the departures, Paterson – who started in March 2012 – replied: “Well, I’m the only one still here. New CEOs come and they bring in a different style.”

Answering questions regarding his approach, Paterson says he likes to lead by example but prefers the team “to also self-initiate” and adds communication is an area he prides as a personal strength.

As for his aviation experience, Paterson – who got the job after running Victoria’s Port of Portland following four years as logistics boss at Ports of Auckland – admits understanding the ins and outs of aviation isn’t a strength.

“No that’s right, and nor should it be – or need it be.

“You see in aviation, as with ports … I don’t have a sea background.

“I have to have very strong operational people,” Paterson says, pointing to the recent promotion of Mark Harrington from airside operations manager to operations boss.

“In Mark, we have that capability. When you look at corporate knowledge and aviation expertise, we have as an organisation access to and have engaged consultants who almost are on a continual advisory role to help us in that space.”

Paterson adds: “The areas where I have very strong skills I bring that is generic to an infrastructure facility is around that communication, community engagement, stakeholder engagement, media engagement.”

Other areas of strength include dealing with planning law, capital management and noise management which they’ve been dealing with lately in terms of affected neighbours: “I’ve had a lot of that type of issue with communities where we’ve had forums.”

Asked if he had concerns about the senior departures, Paterson says: “When you bring in a CEO with a range of skills and experience like me it then impacts on the existing team.” 

Paterson admits it’s been a tough period: “Going through recruitment is tough as you have to commit a lot of time.”

Airport Corporation board chairman John Gilks says he has no concerns about Paterson and believes some staff didn’t like an operational overhaul instituted by Paterson or the culture change inevitable with a new chief executive’s arrival: “There was a different management style to what there had been and a couple of people just couldn’t adjust to that, couldn’t get used to that – but that’s life.

“We weren’t about to endorse any change in Scott’s management style, we liked the way he did things, so they decided they would leave.

“Having said that it’s regrettable you get four people go in five months,” Gilks says, adding he rates Paterson highly as a chief executive and he has his full support.

The departures prompted Gilks to highlight the matter informally with Queestown mayor Vanessa van Uden in October – the mayor is on an airport liaison committee given council is its majority shareholder.

“The reason I did it is … is I was very concerned one of these disaffected people would talk to someone and it might get to Vanessa,” Gilks says. “And I’d rather she hear it from me than somebody who blows it up out of all proportion.”

Paterson says he’s looking forward to next year when he’ll be building his own team:

“I came in with an open mind, I was comfortable with [the team] and each of them resigned. As people move through you kind of go with it and you take it as an opportunity to rebuild and that’s what we’re focused on.”