Helping faith flourish in a New Zealand icon

Speaking to Justin Merrigan, Mark Thompson reflects on his role in helping Interislander’s brand to recover after some challenging years

Helping faith flourish in a New Zealand icon
Interislander’s ferries provide a three-hour crossing between Wellington and Picton in New Zealand

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

There can be few ferry crossings as breathtaking as the voyage between Wellington and Picton, suitably rated as one of New Zealand’s must-do experiences. Quite simply, until you’ve crossed Cook Strait then you haven’t seen the best that New Zealand has to offer.

Operated by state-owned KiwiRail’s Interislander, the passage along the South Island’s Marlborough Sounds is spectacularly beautiful, and it is this hour-long portion of the three-hour crossing that makes the Cook Strait ferry so pleasurable for passengers. KiwiRail’s second largest business unit became part of The Great Journeys of New Zealand, a tourism brand created by KiwiRail in 2017 to unite its four scenic passenger services: Interislander, Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific and TranzAlpine.

Nearly five years ago, Wellingtonian Mark Thompson returned to New Zealand after 25 years living overseas, mainly in Australia but also in the Philippines, China and the US. Tired of the rat race of big city life he returned to his native land and secured the position of general manager at Interislander.

“I didn’t want to sit in the car for the rest of my life; I didn’t want to sit in traffic in Sydney, Manila or Chicago anymore,” he says. “It was about quality of life, but clearly I wanted a good meaty role and that is always the challenge in New Zealand, getting those big roles.”

Thompson certainly gained that when he joined Interislander. At the time, the company was beset with a string of issues that gave rise to the type of media headlines every ferry operator must dread. Broken propellers, rudder damage, power issues and delays cost the company millions of dollars and put a dent in its reputation. A change in direction had to happen.

Building on 25 years’ experience in executive leadership roles with national and international corporates in the areas of logistics, transport and supply chain solutions, Thompson immediately set about placing a greater emphasis on reliability “so the faith and the trust came back.”

“Being a Wellingtonian, Interislander is iconic and coming back from overseas it really was a great opportunity to make a difference for the business,” Thompson comments. “This was a business that was rolling from one problem to another and short-term thinking to short-term thinking. The challenge was to give it a long-term future and vision – eventually driving the current replacement ships and terminals strategy.”

A natural leader, Thompson is proud of the Interislander team and in particular in the way in which it faced the various high-profile challenges, often in the glare of the media spotlight. “The motivation was to build a company that New Zealand could be proud of,” he says. “Our people were empowered in their roles and now high 90% scores is the norm in regard to key performance indicators of punctuality, reliability and customer satisfaction.”

Travelling onboard the ships every week Thompson became visible to the crews. “It is important our people afloat feel they are just as connected as everyone ashore is,” he explains. “To do otherwise, keeping them in the dark with a ‘them and us’ mentality, is simply wrong. They are the Interislander brand and if they don’t feel valued then we have a real problem.”

The ships have performed well but they are getting towards the end of life in New Zealand, so KiwiRail has started looking at a five-year design and replacement plan. “We need to introduce the latest technologies, infrastructure and all of the smarts that can be seen in the European ferry industry today,” says Thompson. “The procurement to replace the existing three-ship fleet is underway and the new vessels will enter service by 2024.”

KiwiRail is placing great emphasis on the design of the ships to ensure high levels of reliability and allow for a one-hour turnaround time during peak periods. With passenger levels expected to reach 1.7 million a year by 2025, it is clear KiwiRail’s new ships would need to be bigger.

“The two new train ferries will be able to transport 1,100 more passengers a day than the three currently crossing Cook Strait (Kaitaki, Aratere and Kaiarahi),” notes Thompson. “They will also need to accommodate 40 rail wagons, about 3,000 lane metres for vehicles and room for about 1,800 passengers each. The newbuild project, known as the Interislander Resilient Connection Project (iReX), will also see port services upgraded to align with the design of the new ferries. We are working with the Port Companies in Wellington and Picton on designs and delivery pathways.”

In the meantime, Interislander continues to build on the advances it has achieved by committing itself to being reliable and flexible, to meeting the market and to keeping the ships’ facilities fresh. A very strong New Zealand flavour has been adopted across the fleet and ranges of food are now offered to suit all tastes – it’s a strategy that obviously works as onboard spend has doubled.

But even while the business worked to shift the focus from assets to customer service, performance and reliability, there were other challenges. Some of these were significant, such as the 2016 Kaikoura earthquakes when the main north rail line between Picton and Christchurch was destroyed. KiwiRail was back on track in 2019, however, with a lift in freight and profits, and Interislander recording its best December (southern hemisphere summer) ever with fare revenue 13% ahead of pre-earthquake levels. Buoyed by Interislander’s success, Thompson now feels it is time to move on and has accepted on the role of general manager of logistics at Wellington port authority CentrePort.

“We have seen unprecedented growth over recent years and given the investment and backing provided by the current government and KiwiRail leadership, I am very optimistic for its future prospects,” says Thompson. “With the restoration of faith and trust in the Interislander brand, and the business now well into the ship replacement programme, the time has come to hand over the keys to take Interislander into a new era. The team now knows what to do and to them I say, keep doing it!”

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Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
27 November 2019

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