there a Qantas memorial board seat at Leighton Holdings, the country’s biggest
contractor? The
question arises after Leighton announced yesterday that Qantas chief financial
officer, Peter Gregg, would become a director. He
replaces Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon, who resigned from the Leighton board six
weeks ago to become a director of PBL where executive chairman, James Packer,
is a director of Qantas.

Talk about cosy cross-directorships. This Sydney shuffling is a bit
like Melbourne in the bad old days, although it might indicate that
Gregg is winning the battle with executive general manager John
Borghetti to succeed Dixon when he eventually retires.

Surely Gregg should be too busy to have an outside directorship. It’s
one thing for a CEO to pick up a board seat as he heads towards
retirement – Ted Kunkel at Billabong and Roger Corbett at Fairfax are
two examples – but quite another to start landing them before even
it into the top job.

For some strange reason Qantas has been a pioneer of this trend,
perhaps reflecting the desires of chairman Margaret Jackson,
Australia’s board hopper par excellence.

Jackson bailed from her two most disastrous boards, BHP and Pacific
on 28 April 2000, the same day she was anointed as Gary Pemberton
successor in the chair at Qantas. All this stuff about being too busy
looked rather odd when she joined
the Gold Coast-based Billabong board ten weeks later – far removed from
the painful memories of chairing the audit committees at BHP and PacDun
as billions were written off.

Amongst brief stints at John Fairfax and Southcorp, Jackson has also
been on the ANZ board
continuously for 12 years. Was it Jacko’s influence on the ANZ board
that saw then Qantas finance
director Garry Twomey take up a board seat with the bank in 1999?
Twomey was
subsequently passed over for Geoff Dixon and defected to Air New
Zealand which ended up costing ANZ plenty when Ansett collapsed and
caused embarrassment all round. Finance directors have been rare beasts
on other boards since all this happened.

Qantas is facing pressure on earnings from higher oil prices and the
A380 delays debacle. Compensation and a possible replacement aircraft
deal has to be negotiated as its shares fell below $3 for the first
time in three years. That surely is enough to keep the airline’s
finance director busy at the Mascot headquarters with no time to
journey into North Sydney/St Leonards for Leighton board meetings.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey