Saturday, March 04, 2023

A new executive has joined the race to head Qantas. But two women have the edge

Qantas is now in such a reputational hole that chairman Richard Goyder has fronted the press twice in three business days to defend the company’s performance and back its boss Alan Joyce. “Being a chief executive is not a popularity contest,” he decreed. “Believe it or not, Alan has a heart.”

Goyder’s apologia was one of terrific overreach. Or was it hyperbole? He didn’t merely say that Joyce is a very good CEO, which is perfectly arguable, he also insisted that Joyce is “the best CEO in Australia by a length of a straight”.

Richard Goyder: Defend the indefensible: Goyder has no Joyce

A new executive has joined the race to head Qantas. But two women have the edge

Business columnist

That high-pitched boom heard at Qantas’ Mascot head office is the sound of the starter gun being fired in the race to take on what is arguably the highest-profile job in corporate Australia – chief executive of the nation’s biggest airline.

Alan Joyce has not officially announced his retirement, maintaining he will remain until at least the end of this calendar year, but he is expected to outline his departure schedule formally some time this year.

Qantas boss Alan Joyce - loved by shareholders, but criticised by customers. LOUIE DOUVIS

Love him or loathe him, Joyce is a hard act to follow. Most would agree they broke the executive mould when they created Joyce.

Qantas chairman Richard Goyder, who heads Joyce’s pom-pom-shaking fan club, agrees there isn’t another Joyce out there.

But he says the board isn’t looking for one either. There will be no Joyce 2.0, says Goyder, as “the biggest mistake you can make is trying to replace Alan with another Alan”.

Such effusive support from a chairman for a chief executive is rarely, if ever, heard.

‘The biggest mistake you can make is trying to replace Alan with another Alan.’

Qantas chairman Richard Goyder

Goyder has aggressively described Joyce as “the best CEO in Australia by a length of a straight”, and is unfazed by the fact that many customers don’t agree.

“Being a chief executive is not a popularity contest,” Goyder declared last year at the height of a customer service debacle during which the airline’s on-time performance sunk, flight cancellations peaked and phone service queues grew.

With the worst of those problems behind it and a record $1.43 billion profit notched up in the December half, Goyder will feel his support for Joyce was vindicated.

(That said, the flying public has found the steep increase in airfares as a new reason to feel aggrieved about the airline and its management.)

And now thanks to this week’s appointment of former Air New Zealand executive Cam Wallace to head up Qantas’ international and freight divisions, there is now a three-horse race to the CEO finish line.

The two other internal candidates considered to be in contention are the head of its loyalty program, Olivia Wirth, and its chief financial officer, Vanessa Hudson.

Sure, Qantas had to fill the position of head of its international division, but the appointment of Wallace also boosts its bench strength and gives it an additional option as it stares down the inevitable departure of Joyce.

Whether Wallace can catch up on the lead already established by Hudson and Wirth is debatable.

Qantas revealed record $1 billion half-yearly profit in major post-pandemic comeback.

A series of executive departures have depleted Qantas’ executive bench over the past couple of years, but Goyder insists that there are strong internal candidates, pointing to Hudson, Wirth and Wallace as “very capable executives”.

So, in terms of succession, Goyder says the board is comfortable about where it sits at the moment.

But in finding a new CEO, the board may seek someone with a softer public profile than Joyce, who Goyder notes has “put his head above the parapet on a whole lot of issues” in a way that some people don’t like.

“Aviation is a tough industry, and Alan’s been prepared to make tough decisions. Shareholders respect him for that as do people who know him,” Goyder said.

Cam Wallace, Vanessa Hudson and Olivia Wirth are all in the running for the Qantas CEO job. NICK MOIR, BLOOMBERG, RENEE NOWYTARGER

Pendal investment analyst Sondal Bensan is one in a chorus of shareholders that supports Joyce.

“The Qantas executive team under the leadership of Alan Joyce has done a phenomenal job,” he says.

Joyce, a mathematician by training, has aviation fuel in his veins. Having started his career at Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus, he moved on to become head of network planning at later collapsed Ansett Australia. He ran Qantas’ budget airline Jetstar for five years before taking the top job at its parent.

Neither Hudson nor Wirth have the operational experience of running an airline.

Hudson has the financial capacity and experience in customer management, and Wirth’s experience is with customer communications and loyalty schemes. Hudson has the additional notch in her belt of having successfully managed Qantas’ liquidity and balance sheet through the pandemic.

Goyder says both women have been senior executives in the Qantas team, and that the next chief executive would not need to have ticked the “have run an airline” box to get the top job.

It seems their positions have enabled them to inhale enough airline fumes to back their strong candidacy.

Goyder says his time as a chief executive at Wesfarmers and as a Qantas chairman has given him enough experience of executives to say both Wirth and Hudson “are as good as any I have seen”.

“Whoever does (get the job) will bring their own strengths to the role,” he said. “CEO succession allows a new person to change some emphasis, and that’s often good for an organisation.”

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