Destination unknown for Alan Joyce

The Qantas chief has made his reputation at one of the toughest gigs in corporate Australia, but how long will his abundant energy for the position last?

The Power Index

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 chief executives (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 chief executive 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 chief executive 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 Billiton, 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.

But it also saw Fair Work Australia terminate the industrial action and the matter listed for arbitration, a move Joyce counted as a win, and one that lawyers believe could see Fair Work legislation amended in the future. It also sent a powerful message to the business community.

"It was definitely a circuit breaker," a prominent workplace relations partner tells The Power Index. "Nothing settles something quicker than the certainty of a hearing date, that's what happened with Qantas. Business has now started to think differently about arbitration."

Joyce's stature rose in the corporate world. At the Business Council of Australia's annual dinner, he was seated on the same table as the prime minister. Chief executives were keen to shake his hand.

Joyce is an unlikely poster child for rallying up the corporates. The Dublin-born, Labor voting, mathematics whizz proudly boasts a touch of union blood (his grandfather was active in Ireland) as well as a keen eye for the low-cost airline model that makes flying an option for more passengers.

He earned his aviation stripes working numbers and equations for Aer Lingus. He arrived in Australia in 1996 to join Ansett, left for Qantas in 2000, and was later asked to become Jetstar's founding chief executive to build a new brand for Qantas that could keep the entry of Virgin Blue in check.

His Qantas predecessor, Geoff Dixon, famously said he inherited a "shit sandwich" when he personally took the job in 2000. But Joyce didn't feel that way, at least not in 2009 when he told the ABC: "I wouldn't want any other job in the aviation industry."

Perhaps lunch was made more palatable by the unwavering support he receives from chairman Leigh Clifford. So much so that some watchers wonder who's really in the pilot's seat.

Internally, Joyce's management style is persuasive, yet sincere. Despite hostilities with his own workforce, we're told he's got some supporters who consider him well-liked (even a little amusing) within the corporate team.

Although according to one pilot contacted by The Power Index, love for the man is rarely shared between flight crew colleagues in airport lounges across the world.

Even Joyce's fiercest critics acknowledge the turbulent times facing his airline: souring fuel prices, an aging fleet, a heavily unionised workforce and difficult-to-match competition from nationalised airlines overseas.

While Joyce is hardly shy of talking up these challenges – and particularly complaining about the competitor – he's made attempts to meet them with an approach that long-time aviation journalist Ben Sandilands likens to a kid with an attention deficit disorder.

But Joyce is finally running out of energy. Some watchers believe that Joyce's departure is imminent, and could occur within a matter of weeks.

The man's final surprise could be that he pulls a rabbit out the hat with his strategy to split the airline into both domestic and international divisions that puts the group in a more profitable position.

But we reckon he may finally be out of party tricks.

This article first appeared on The Power Index on June 21. Republished with permission.