From the top of mountains to top of corporate tree

His flamboyant bow ties may have been his trademark but the former Qantas boss James Strong will be remembered for a career as extensive as the number of high-risk adventures he pursued outside of the corporate world.

His flamboyant bow ties may have been his trademark but the former Qantas boss James Strong will be remembered for a career as extensive as the number of high-risk adventures he pursued outside of the corporate world.

Behind the refined exterior, his steely determination was as evident running Qantas as climbing Mount Vinson in Antarctica in 1991 or his endeavours in the world of arts and motorsport.

One of Australia's top business figures, Mr Strong, 68, died in Sydney on Sunday night of lung complications from surgery. He leaves behind his wife, Jeanne-Claude, and his sons Nick and Sam.

Known as "Mr Bow Tie", his near five-decade career spanned multiple industries including aviation, law, retail and insurance. Apart from his role as Qantas CEO, his senior roles included chairman of Woolworths, IAG, Rip Curl and more recently Kathmandu.

He shot to prominence running Australian Airlines in the 1980s. His formula for turning around a moribund domestic airline was customer service. It was central in bridging the chasm between Australian Airlines and Ansett.

It was a strategy he took to Qantas in 1993 when he became chief executive. His eight years in one of the highest-profile corporate jobs in the nation included integrating Australian Airlines into the "Flying Kangaroo", and overseeing the 1995 float of the larger carrier.

Former Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon said Mr Strong was a "real renaissance man [because] he basically had it all when it came to business", including an extensive background in industrial relations and a nous for marketing and sales.

"What defined him was that he was a nice, decent and highly ethical person," he said. "The other thing that defined him a lot was that behind ... the bow tie was a really steely, tough person. He made the hard decisions - he didn't expect others to make them for him."

Although polite and scrupulous, Mr Strong rebuffed takeover advances on IAG from Frank O'Halloran's QBE Insurance. He also gave Michael Hawker his marching orders as chief executive of IAG, a tough decision because the former Wallaby was also a friend.

Qantas chief Alan Joyce described him "as a giant of Australian aviation and Qantas history".

"Under James' leadership, Qantas remained at the forefront of global aviation with its commitment to fleet renewal, including the ground-breaking Airbus A380," he said. "For me personally, James was a great mentor, and a great example of corporate leadership."

Mr Strong's experience earned him the appointment of chairman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in November, and he had been a director of Qantas since 2006 and chairman of Kathmandu since 2009.

But his extensive corporate career was far from the only thing that shaped his life. His range of interests included mountaineering, motorsport, parachuting, whitewater rafting and the arts. The latter included time as chairman of the Australia Council for the Arts.

"There is no doubt that James didn't die wondering - he did it all and he made sure he did it all," said Mr Dixon, who first met him four decades ago in the Northern Territory. "He was just so wide ranging. He climbed mountains, he rode motorbikes, he was an absolute participant and supporter of the arts and, unknown to a lot of people, a real rugby league guy."

As well as six years with the Australia Council, Mr Strong served on arts company boards including as a director of Opera Australia, and chairman of the Sydney Theatre Company, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Australia Business Arts Foundation.

Australia Council chairman Rupert Myer said Mr Strong had made an enduring contribution to the arts. "James brought a dynamic combination of corporate experience and deep passion for the arts," he said. "He was a great friend to Australia's artists and a distinguished cultural leader."

His passion for sport led to the chairmanship of the organising committee for the 2015 Cricket World Cup, and was a director of the Australian Grand Prix, and recently chairman of V8 Supercars.

V8 Supercar chief executive David Malone said Mr Strong possessed an extensive knowledge and passion for motorsport, including acting as a personal mentor to Mark Webber and Casey Stoner.

He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2006 for his services to business, commerce and the arts.

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