Alan Joyce likes nothing more than a good surprise — as long as it’s passengers, employees and shareholders who get the shock, rather than himself. And over the past year the fast talking Irishman’s pulled the rug out time and time again.

He’s announced a major restructure that spits its business into domestic and international units, appointed a number of new CEOs (while ousting his touted successor in the process), unveiled plans for a premium airline in Asia and sparked his own industrial relations revolution by grounding the entire Qantas fleet.

Then there was the surprise profit downgrade the chief issued earlier this month that sent the stock price into a spin.

Joyce has gone so far with his game of pass-the-parcel that there’s talk of a potential hostile takeover, while rival Virgin Australia is confident it will nab an even greater slice of the Australian market due to the turbulence. Captain Joyce is flying Qantas into its future: but just where the vessel will land is unknown.

“I think it’s one of the toughest gigs in Australia. I really mean that,” former Qantas CEO James Strong tells The Power Index. “It is so public. It’s in a complex, irrational industry. And everybody’s got an opinion about it. It’s in the limelight all the time, and it’s political.”

Joyce may have the country’s most difficult job, but he does earn his keep (his pay package is worth $5 million, bonuses and shares included) and he doesn’t mind the limelight, nor the opportunity to defend his actions. The Transport Workers Union’s Tony Sheldon tells us Joyce is “extremely ruthless” about using his power to get his way — but adds the CEO will always take his phone calls.

When it comes to the shock and awe tactics Joyce likes to dish out, he can talk them through on any outlet, and at any time of the day.

For one weekend last October he did just that, and showed he’s got endless energy to burn — despite being treated for prostate cancer in early 2011. Joyce stopped a nation when he woke up one Saturday morning and decided it was time to take on the unions at their own game. He met with his executives, and then later contacted the board, all of whom unanimously supported his decision to ground the entire fleet in a bid to end the ongoing threat of strikes.

“I knew what my gut feeling was, but I also knew my mind could be changed if my advisers said, ‘Alan, that’s a crazy decision, you shouldn’t be doing it’,” Joyce recently told The Weekend Australian. He claimed he got on the phone to tell the chiefs of his key customers — BHP, Leighton Holdings and Rio Tinto among them — who were all supportive.

Labelled “irresponsible” by the government, the move cost Qantas almost $200 million, left 100,000 passengers stranded, employees divided and the brand tarnished.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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