The most powerful woman in Australian aviation sees smooth skies ahead as she guides Tiger Airways through its rapid expansion. Shelley Roberts shares her vision for the airline with Jane Southward.
When Shelley Roberts was at university in South Africa she took a whirlwind trip to Europe with Contiki. She saw 23 countries in 31 days.
Halfway through the trip, she phoned her father, an Austrian restaurateur in Cape Town, and begged him to upgrade her from a tent to a cabin. He refused, telling his only daughter she had made her own bed and had to sleep in it.
It's an experience that taught young Shelley about the practicalities of travel and the importance of research before making critical decisions.
It's a lesson that has helped her in a business career that has taken her around the world and to the top as the most powerful woman in the Australian aviation industry.
In July last year, Roberts started as managing director of Australia's newest airline, Tiger Airways.
I know I have been very fortunate. I have been lucky to be able to get a lot of experience at a very young age.
South African born, she studied finance and economics at the University of Cape Town and worked for KPMG.
When she was 22, she was transferred to the London office and worked on big-name clients including Nestle.
In 2001, she started working in Britain on low-cost airline easyJet and then in 2005 she moved to Australia for a job as asset director for Macquarie Airports.
She also worked as a director of Sydney Airport Corporation.
Roberts, 34, is proud of the Singapore-based Tiger's simple strategy: create a one-class airline and slash the price of flying on key domestic routes.
So far Tiger is flying on 17 routes from Melbourne and Adelaide bases to most capital cities as well as the Gold Coast, Launceston and Alice Springs.
Flights cost as little as $39 from Sydney to Adelaide and Melbourne to Sydney and only economy class seats are offered, allowing more seats on each flight.
Roberts claims Tiger isn't aiming to steal market share from Jetstar, Virgin and Qantas but to create a new market from people who would fly but don't because of cost.
“If you drop the fares, you grow the market,” she says. “The rate of growth in Australia has been huge and if you look at the UK experience, in five years, easyJet and Ryanair are doing three times the business of British Airways.”
An experience she had shortly after moving to Australia from Britain in 2005 motivates her to reduce the cost of flights.
Desperate to see Uluru, she and her husband tried to book a weekend trip to the Red Centre.
Used to cheap flights on budget airlines in Europe, they were shocked to find the flights alone would cost them $800 each.
“When I was in the UK, I used to fly to different cities at weekends on low-cost flights,” she says.
“I was absolutely shocked when I saw the price. I really wanted to go but we had to plan it as a week's holiday to justify the cost. It just didn't make sense.
“I love walking down the aisles of Tiger and meeting passengers who are only flying because of the low cost. You meet friends visiting girlfriends who have had babies, children visiting grandma. It's clear that consumers are taking to the airline because of the low cost.”
History doesn't auger well for any new airline on Australian shores. Compass, Oz Jet, Impulse have all failed. But Roberts claims there is room in the market for Tiger and she is convinced the airline will succeed here.
Already more than 2 million passengers have flown with Tiger in Australia and the business has grown by 50 per cent this year alone.
Since July, Tiger has been flying between Sydney and Melbourne on what is the world's third-busiest route.
Tiger is 49 per cent owned by Singapore Airlines. The Australian operation has six aircraft flying on 16 routes and a staff of 200.
A seventh new aircraft will arrive from France in September and Roberts is hoping 30 of the 50 planes Tiger has on order will eventually help her expand Tiger's presence in Australia. The company is already recruiting 30 more pilots and cabin crew.
Her friend and mentor Ruth Martin, who worked with Roberts at the Sydney Airport Corporation alongside chairman and chief executive officer Max Moore-Wilton, describes Roberts as a good thinker.
“She has an ability to influence people but she backs that with dedication and lots of hard work,” says Martin, who now works at Stockland. “Running an airline is pretty much a 24/7 workload.”
Roberts denies this with a hearty laugh, saying she does her best to keep the weekends free to spend time with her husband, executive coach John.
She nominates Moore-Wilton as a key mentor, saying that, when they worked together at Macquarie, he often took her aside to “teach me politics 101”.
While Roberts and her husband are based in Melbourne, they also have a home in Sydney's Neutral Bay and keep a boat in Middle Harbour.
As for the future, Roberts says she loves her job at Tiger.
“There are stages in your life for different things and at the moment this is a full-time job that I love,” she says.
“While I believe that you make your own life, I know I have been very fortunate. I have been lucky to be able to get a lot of experience at a very young age. And I'm pretty happy where I am at the moment.”