The Winding Road: Christine Fenby Reflects On Her Journey to the Vista Group

Credit: Russell Hamlet, Auckland, NZ

Earlier this year, Boxoffice Pro partnered with Celluloid Junkie to present the fourth-annual list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published in our CinemaCon issue. Throughout 2019 and early 2020, Boxoffice Pro will continue to honor the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.

“As a business practitioner, I do tend to get things done!” A lot of things over a handful of industries across the years—all of which brought Christine Fenby to where she is now, serving as the marketing director of Vista Group. 

“There’s always an element of accident or luck to growth,” Fenby reflects. “I look back on my career, and I really think that there’s been quite a lot of that. I’ve been extremely fortunate with the people that I’ve met along the way and the opportunities that they’ve given me. The other side is, you don’t end up doing the work you do without your own efforts. You’ve got to have a certain level of ability and [do] hard work. [But still,] you don’t start out thinking, ‘I want to be that.’”

Fenby’s path to her role as head of marketing for Vista and its suite of many, many products began in the world of television, working in production management for the public broadcaster Television New Zealand (TVNZ) when she was in her early 20s. “I had a marvelous time. I traveled all over the country making all kinds of programs, from documentaries to dramas to entertainment programs. You name it, we worked on them.” 

Co-productions with the BBC occasionally took Fenby outside New Zealand. The international scope of her career took another jump in 1997, when Fenby joined TVNZ’s Pacific Services division. Government funding had been pulled from TVNZ, Fenby explains, so the network had to “make its own way financially. One of the results was the development of new businesses outside of domestic broadcast television.” 

One of those, Pacific Services, involved rolling out public television networks across the Pacific Island countries. “A group of about four of us [were told], ‘Go figure this out.’ It was a very green field for us and very exciting, because we didn’t have a model to work from. We just had to figure it out as we went along. … I loved it, because I was learning so much. It was a personal test of my own ability. I really enjoyed that opportunity to create something new that no one had done before.”

Fenby’s period of growth didn’t take place just at TVNZ; it was during this time that, while still working, she got her MBA at the University of Auckland. She’d dismissed higher education initially because she had “no idea what I wanted to do.” Midway through her time at TVNZ, however, she “worked out for myself that if I was going to continue the trajectory of a career in business, then I was going to have to go to university and get myself a degree. … I think it was one of the best things that I ever did. Just a little wry observation on the side: I think if I’d been a man, I probably wouldn’t have needed to do that, necessarily. As a woman, I kind of did. I don’t know if that would be the same today.”

Another career shift followed: from Pacific Services, Fenby moved to Satellite Services, serving as the marketing director (her first purely marketing job) for TVNZ’s digital satellite network. As an occasional provider of sports and news content, Satellite Services found itself in direct competition with “billion dollar companies.” And then there was TVNZ: “geographically challenged, really small, public broadcaster, 20 people [on the team]. We ended up on a par with those competitors. We distinguished ourselves through our people. I think it would be fair to say that our differentiators were behaviors. We made sure that we visited a lot of our customers. We’d get on a plane and go and see them. At that time, people thought that was amazing. If you said, ‘I’ve come from Auckland. I’ve flown 30 hours to get here,’ it would be, ‘Come in! Have a cup of tea!’”

TVNZ was a government agency, and, in the way of things, there were some behind-the-scenes changes that Fenby took as her “cue to leave.” The fundamentals had been established for a career at Vista—specifically, a twin fondness for and knowledge of working in a global company with a tech focus—but it took another few career changes to finally get her there.

First came work at a brand communications agency. “Honestly, it was an epic fail,” she admits. “I was really hopeless at business development, because I’m not a salesperson. I’d had this quite stellar pathway through my years at TVNZ, and then suddenly I was in this role where I was like, A, ‘I really hate this. This is not fun,’ and B, ‘I don’t think that I can do it very well. This is not my skillset.’” 

One good thing that came out of this stage in Fenby’s career was the realization of what she didn’t want to do. Another: Fenby met Murray Holdaway, co-founder of a relatively new company, then called Vista Cinema, that was one of the agency’s clients. When Fenby started her own, small consulting business, Holdaway got in touch. What started as intermittent consulting work ended with a job offer, as Holdaway “realized that they needed to get a bit more serious [about marketing] given how the business was tracking.” (Or, as Fenby recalls Holdaway joking at the time: “Murray said to me that he thought I needed to come on staff because I was costing them too much money!”)

The allure of returning to an international, tech-focused company wasn’t the only attraction Vista Cinemas held for Fenby. “I wanted to be back working with people on a daily basis. I wanted to be part of a team. Murray was my mentor, really. He’s the best leader that I have ever come across in my career. Even though he stepped down as CEO, he’s still around. The behaviors and practices and so forth that Murray put into place with his founding colleagues prevail. … Murray recognizes things in people. We have a very high number of people who’ve come into Vista at a very young age, and they’re still here. And I think that speaks volumes about our culture and what kind of company we are.”

Another benefit working at Vista had over consulting is that, with the company, Fenby would be able to “be there for the outcomes.” And boy, there would be outcomes. In 2014, a year and a half after Fenby’s hiring, Vista went public. “It was about 20 times the work we thought it was going to be,” she recalls. “It was an absolute privilege to be involved with it. I learned such a lot. From a marketing perspective, I felt an enormous challenge. We’d already brought [marketing solutions provider] Movio on board. And suddenly we were Vista Group. We weren’t just Vista Cinema anymore.” 

“We very quickly became this cluster of businesses” dedicated to myriad aspects of running a theater, from selling digital tickets to booking films to employee scheduling, Fenby recalls. “The challenge from my perspective was to communicate to the market what the hell that meant! It was all very well calling ourselves ‘Vista Group,’ [going public] and buying businesses. But it was like, ‘What’s the strategy here and how are we going to communicate that to our customers so that they see value in it?’ That was my mandate, from 2014 or so onwards. I’m very proud of that work that we’ve done to position the group. In terms of the industry, now, if you don’t know who Vista Group is and have a general idea of what it is that we provide, I don’t know what rock you’ve been under, really!”

Transitioning to Vista Group—and, for Fenby, making sure all of Vista Group’s various parts are presented as a unified whole—was “the last chapter” for Vista. “Now we need to consolidate a bit and make sure that we’re keeping up and continuing with the leadership position that we’ve been fortunate enough to develop over a long period of time,” she explains. The next chapter includes “an acceleration of our new cloud-product development,” something that she’s particularly excited about. “There are challenges that we have ahead of us. If I can, in this role, see those challenges [through], then when I’m in my bath chair, when I’m old, I’m going to be pretty damn proud of it.”

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