Our Stories: Rebecca MacDonald

Written by Ruth Keeling. Posted in Our Stories.

Bex McDonald

An overseas experience in the UK is often a career-defining opportunity for young Kiwis to gain professional experience not available at home. But for New Zealand business women coming (or returning) to the UK later in their career, it is often the wide-ranging, high-level leadership experience which they have developed in New Zealand’s smaller markets that makes them the perfect fit for specialist roles abroad. Former Air New Zealand General Manager of Property and Infrastructure Rebecca MacDonald has experienced both types of ‘O.E.’. She returned in April this year, 14 years after her initial London stint, as the UK Director for Property Assets for the Marshall Group Property in Cambridge. 

The historic British firm Marshall operates worldwide in aerospace design, defence systems and fleet management, including the management of Cambridge City Airport where it has its headquarters. In a major redevelopment plan, the group intends to expand this 500-acre airport site into an innovative housing and commercial space, providing world-class education, housing and employment opportunities, while moving its own aerospace operations to Cranfield in a cooperation agreement with Cranfield University. This ambitious undertaking for a new “working/living hub” in Cambridge East (which is still going through the national planning review process), and the parallel investment in aerospace infrastructure on a new site sparked Rebecca’s professional interest while on holiday. 

Rebecca was in the UK for the Covid-delayed Glastonbury Festival in 2022 when a longtime friend introduced her to various contacts at Marshall, knowing she would be excited to hear about the group’s plans for Cambridge East. “I was still talking in New Zealand about opportunities there, but the reality is - in terms of scope and the type of project that I’m looking after here, there wasn’t anything in comparison. And I was up for a bit of something different as well!” In her new role, she is involved in the planning process for the Cambridge City Airport site, but her main project is to design the fit-for-purpose infrastructure for aerospace at Cranfield, which will include expanding the Marshall Group’s “Skills Academy” training programme in collaboration with Cranfield University. “My project is to work with primarily the aerospace business, understand what the future looks like, and then create the necessary physical presence for it.”

Rebecca’s broad-ranging engineering background in property development and construction, along with managerial experience in the aviation industry, made her an ideal fit for Marshall. She spent the last seven years in senior management (property and infrastructure) at Air New Zealand, including periods managing the company’s operations at Wellington, Dunedin and Invercargill airports. An electrical engineer by training and with early roles in property design and refurbishment, her work at Air New Zealand gave her unique aviation expertise: “It’s quite a niche group of skills.” At Marshall, they wanted precisely these. “So Marshall is a defence aerospace business, and Air New Zealand is a commercial, civilian aerospace business, but what goes into building the infrastructure such as a hangar is only slightly different. There are lots of nice synergies.” Managing the day-to-day operations at several NZ airports has also given Rebecca experience in managing large teams and unexpected situations - most dramatically during the recent floods at Auckland airport, where she returned from her UK trip directly into firefighting the emergency. 

Rebecca’s first Overseas Experience in the UK between 2007 and 2010 was shaped by the global financial crisis. Having worked in NZ after graduation, she wanted her London stint to also be a career progression. “So even when I came over here, ‘footloose and fancy-free’, I had the advantage of lots of connections and had a pretty good idea of what I was walking into.” She chose a solid engineering role at CB Richard Ellis over higher-earning but more unstable contracting work, and retained her job during the recession because she could work broadly across disciplines. She left London for a more senior property role in New Zealand, but still finds this early-career engineering experience highly-relevant to her current role.

This time though, her experience of British working life is quite different. “The last time I came, quite frankly, I knew more people in London than in New Zealand, everybody had left to do their O.E… so I walked into this ready-made social circle. Whereas this time, it’s completely different, most of the Kiwis that I knew back then have all gone back home.” She packed many quintessentially British experiences into her first trip, attending the Queen’s Garden Party and having her NZ-earned Duke of Edinburgh Award personally awarded at St James’ Palace by Prince Philip. This time, she has a partner, a house, and a dog (fresh out of quarantine from NZ), and intends to explore more of the UK slowly by car, and host her Kiwi family with young kids for a European Christmas.

“I moved in my 20s for the life experience, this time I moved for my career”, reflects Rebecca. She enjoys the alignments between her work for Air New Zealand and Marshall, keeping in close contact with former colleagues working on similar projects with similar goals: “I really value relationships and invest in them.” Stepping outside of established networks is a bit difficult later in your career, she acknowledges. Nonetheless, she carefully took time before accepting Marshall’s offer to explore alternative pathways, so feels fully committed to this new UK adventure. “If you’re thinking about coming over here, figure out what the priorities are for you and then set yourself up for success -  just think carefully about the things you need to make the most of the opportunity.”