'I went to my weakest employee and said, I've got your back' - iFLY business owner

Matt Wong retained all staff during COVID as firms around him crumbled. He explains to HRD how that decision is now paying off

'I went to my weakest employee and said, I've got your back' - iFLY business owner

Matt Wong, the owner of Queenstown tourism attraction iFLY, was first employed by its parent company as general manager of the 12-foot vertical wind tunnel that simulates skydiving when the company launched operations in the town in 2018.

iFly had 80 similar tunnels globally and were set to be a major tourism player. Eighteen months later, COVID hit, and the company barely had time to establish its brand in the resort’s fiercely competitive market.

Through COVID, however, Wong emerged as one of the most robust and innovative leaders in the decimated resort town, growing revenue for iFLY while 80% of his customer base had been cut off. He purposely retained all his staff while businesses around his downsized, restructured, and in some cases, crumbled.

“There were horror stories,” Wong, who is on the board of the resort’s Chamber of Commerce and also mentors young business entrepreneurs, told HRD.

The resort’s tourism operators were scrambling, closing their doors, and laying off full teams overnight, often with only an email, sometimes with no clear communication at all.

Wong did the opposite to his knee-jerking, tourism counterparts and “panicked slowly”, not wanting to make anyone redundant. Wong told his staff he would continue to employ them for as long as the financial forecasts would allow.

“I went to my weakest employee and said, ‘I’ve got your back, your job is safe’.”

Revealing that somewhere along the way, he may have gotten in trouble for saying weakest employee, Wong justified the tactic, “Everyone that runs a business knows exactly where their staff sit. All the staff know who your weakest performer is too, without you even having to say anything. So, what happened was they all went, if he’s got their back, he’s got our back, we’re not going to get bumped first, so it immediately takes away one layer of stress for your staff,” said Wong.

“I didn’t see many companies in Queenstown replicate that,” Wong mused. As people all over town lost their jobs, the look of relief from his staff when he said they would keep their jobs only made Wong want to do more for his staff. “It’s basic psychology,” said Wong, “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s one of the most basic psychological principles out there. Give them the psychological safety that they need.” 

Read more: Leadership in the age of D&I

Wong’s leadership training came from a wide and varied range of mentors, mixed with learning what not to do from bad bosses. “I make sure I’ve got mentors, I continue to gather mentors up, and when I get stuck with something, I give them a call, or I send them an email.

“But what leadership really comes down to,” Wong said, “is if you’ve got a problem with your staff, you’ve got a problem with your leadership. If there’s a problem, then you apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: what do they need that I am not giving them?”

A few months after New Zealand’s first lockdown, Wong embarked on a successful eight-month long negotiation to purchase the New Zealand iFLY operation from its parent company.

“Never waste a good crisis, there is no better time to buy a tourism company,” Wong laughed, while conceding that buying a tourism business pre-Covid would never have been possible. While he didn’t pay what it would’ve cost to set up the business from scratch, he paid what both parties agreed was a fair price. “The key part,” said Wong, “is don’t take advantage of people, take advantage of the situation.”

Wong’s loyalty to his staff bought their loyalty in return, iFLY’s staff were now passionate brand advocates that became problem-solvers for the business and suddenly Covid had opened a huge gap for iFLY to establish their brand as a major tourism operator.

“Everyone wrote us off, we were very much the underdog because we were a start-up, and no one was even looking at what we were doing so we could do whatever we wanted,” said Wong.

In contrast to other operators, iFLY listened to the negative comments the domestic market was making around Queenstown’s pricing, and they cut their prices. Then the team got to work looking for new markets that might like to take advantage of the sudden availability of a 12-foot vertical wind tunnel. Pretty soon they had secured contracts with the education sector, the professional skydiving industry, and the military. As a team, they increased revenue over both years of Covid.

As New Zealand’s border’s re-open to the world and tourist’s return, Wong’s people-centric leadership style is paying off again, while businesses around him struggle to re-open because they can’t re-staff their workforce, Wong can focus on getting his fully staffed team ready for the new round of tourists.

Moving forward, Wong said he was taking it to the next level by leading his team like a high-performing sports team. “Back to Maslow,” Wong laughs, “But really, where are they at? They’ve got respect, belonging and love from the business, now we need to empower them to reach that self-actualisation piece, where they’re at their optimal performance.

“There’s been a shift in mindset from the traditional leader,” said Wong who believes we’ve moved away from the ‘I pay you, you work for me, you do a good job, if you don’t, I’ll fire you’ leader, to a more inclusive ‘you’re a part of this eco-system and I need to provide you everything you need to be your best’ kind of leadership.

Wong said he doesn’t want to work with businesses that don’t share his ethos. “You’ve got to look after your staff, your customers, your community and your environment, and if you haven’t got all those pillars, then I don’t want to do business with you,” said Wong

“iFLY represents who I am as a person. I still want to make money, I want to have business vitality and success as a businessperson, but I want to treat my staff well, and I want to make sure I bring my staff up with me.”

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