How Alan Joyce faced down his critics and won

If you were seeking a safe refuge to bunker down while under siege, you would be hard pressed to find a better bolthole than Qantas's Chairman's Lounge. Lucky for chief executive Alan Joyce, he can retreat to the country's most exclusive little club any time he likes. It's here, in the lounge reserved for Qantas's most special customers, that Joyce is happy to greet Executive Style.

The new year will mark a decade since Joyce took the reins at the world's oldest operating airline (KLM started flying a year before Qantas, in 1919, but the Dutch carrier ceased flights during WWII). Joyce admits there has been more than the odd occasion during his tenure when he felt like he needed a safe haven.

Promoted after launching Jetstar in 2002, Joyce has overseen one of the most tumultuous decades in the history of Qantas. He has been in the CEO's chair for the global financial crisis and a bitter price war with rival Virgin Australia.

In 2010, an engine failure on the company's flagship Airbus A380 nearly brought down flight QF32. The following year saw the most controversial of all of Joyce's decisions: when he grounded the entire Qantas fleet in the midst of an industrial dispute with staff.

"I remember once," recalls Joyce. "I think it was 2013, I was on [TV show] Sunrise. They had done a poll that asked should I resign, and 98 per cent of their viewers at the time said I should. It was a crazy-high number. But my response at the time was that I work for the board and the shareholders, I am not a politician."

If you aren't out there disrupting yourself, then someone else is going to come along and disrupt you.

Alan Joyce

The calculated risk-taker

Talk to people in business and airline circles, and they say the Joyce strategy has always included a large amount of risk. Joyce maintains while risks have been taken, it has not been without strategy, or the full support of the board.

"One of the things we are good at in the aviation industry is managing risk," says Joyce. "In the business world you have to take risks to survive these days. The business cycle is faster and faster. If you aren't out there disrupting yourself, then someone else is going to come along and disrupt you.

"Even in 2011, when we grounded the airline over the industrial dispute, and had a lock-out of staff. While that was my call, [chairman] Leigh Clifford asked the board if they supported the decision and it was unanimous."

Share prices plummeted as low as 97 cents in the wake of the grounding, but the turnaround since then has been dramatic. Qantas is now one of the most profitable airlines in the world, with shares reaching a nine-year high of $6.45 in October.

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"If you look at the past year we are the number one stock on the ASX 100, we are the number one airline stock that Bloomberg analyses, and the same is true over the past three years," says Joyce.

Such is the life of the boss of one of Australia's most famous companies; everyone has an opinion on how the company should be run. "People are passionate about the brand and people have ownership," he says. "You would rather be in that position than people not giving a damn. Just look at the media coverage of Qantas. When things are good, you get amazing coverage. And when it's bad, the coverage is very really bad. Take the arrival of Dreamliner as an example. We estimated we got $20 million of free publicity in Australia alone out of that aircraft."

The boy from Dublin

Much has changed for Alan Joyce since he arrived in Australia in 1996 to work for Ansett. Armed with a degree in mathematics and physics from prestigious Trinity College in Dublin, he used his numerical nous to become an expert in planning network routes.

His big break came when he was selected to oversee the birth of Jetstar. Photos of Joyce at the launch of airline show him pictured in a dark blue shirt and a black suit, a security tag hanging from his trousers. Still boyish, he looks more like an extra from The Big Bang Theory than the urbane executive he has become. Joyce chuckles when asked what advice he would give that younger version of himself.

"There's no chance at all he would know what was coming," says Joyce. "There have been so many things along the way that have occurred. The IR issues. The engine that blew up on QF32. The perfect storm of the GFC, the record oil price and the Aussie dollar going to record levels. The domestic capacity wars. I could never have predicted any of that when I first started at Jetstar."

After years of bunkering down, Joyce is embarking on the next phase of his career, and a new era for the national carrier. He has introduced new livery and a refreshed version of the famous Flying Kangaroo. The latest Boeing Dreamliner planes, which can fly from Perth to London non-stop, will begin taking passengers in the new year.

Yes!

Joyce was one of the first executives in the country to align his company with the marriage equality debate, and personally donated $1 million to the 'Yes' campaign.

The ugly backlash included a pie in the face from a religious zealot at a business event in Perth, and tennis legend Margaret Court calling for a boycott of the airline. Joyce, one of the few openly gay CEOs in corporate Australia, has maintained his resolve and dignity throughout.

"I am just waiting for the day marriage equality comes and, like just about everyone else in the country, then get on with life," says Joyce. "[Now] we just want the politicians to get on with what they should have been doing in the first place, which is doing their job and passing the legislation. Instead we have gone through this exercise."

Asked if the attacks have taken a personal toll, Joyce is relaxed when he answers. "No, not me," he says. "As you know, with all the stuff we have gone through at Qantas over the past while, I can take it. But there are people in the LGBTI community that this has taken a toll on. That's clear. I see it. I have had some terrible notes from people who have had a lot of anguish with what's been going on.

"I think Australia is better than this. I am so proud of this country. Being an Irishman who came down here 20 years ago, became an Aussie citizen and then becoming CEO of this great and iconic company, it is very much a meritocracy. To me, Australia has always been a progressive country. You gave women the vote. Now we have been let down by our politicians on this issue … With the vote out of the way, we can show the rest of the world how progressive we are."

Next stop...

Joyce is now betting that passengers will pay a premium to fly non-stop on Dreamliner, and is seeking a plane that will fly from the east coast to London or New York non-stop.

"Aircraft technology is maybe the thing that is exciting me most right now," says Joyce. "We have challenged both Boeing and Airbus to give us an aircraft that can do that trip from the east coast to both London and to New York. I have spoken to the CEOs of both Boeing and Airbus, and I believe we will have that by 2022."

You have to admire Joyce's sense of humour. Four years after that poll on Sunrise, the CEO has officially launched a project to secure that game-changing plane. It's called Project Sunrise.