James Strong: a life lived at full throttle

Five-time world motorcycle champion Mick Doohan summed up best his friend James Strong, one of Australia's leading business figures.

Five-time world motorcycle champion Mick Doohan summed up best his friend James Strong, one of Australia's leading business figures.

"He lived life at full throttle - and he's the only bow-tie bikie I know," he told a memorial service for the former Qantas boss in Sydney on Monday. "If he was a motorcyclist, he would be the world champion. And he was obviously a world champion in the business arena."

More than a 1000 mourners from across Australia's business, arts and sporting fraternities gathered to pay tribute at Sydney's City Recital Hall to the man known for his signature bow ties.

Earlier in the day, as a salute to the former chief executive of Qantas and Australian Airlines, a Qantas A380 superjumbo flew low over the city from north to south. It was a fitting farewell for a man who played a key role in shaping the country's aviation industry.

Attendees at the memorial service included federal government ministers Simon Crean and Peter Garrett, former Liberal senator Helen Coonan, former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane and NSW Governor Marie Bashir.

Other senior figures were Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce and his predecessor Geoff Dixon, Woolworths boss Grant O'Brien, Telstra director Geoffrey Cousins, former NSW premier Nick Greiner and Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett.

Mr Joyce told the service Mr Strong got Qantas "ready for the future, uniting the tribes into one cohesive whole ... and leading Qantas through its successful rebirth as a public company".

"He was a true gentleman but also a fighter; an opera buff and a revhead, a mountain climber and a bookworm; a businessman and a dreamer," Mr Joyce said.

"James will be remembered forever as a giant of Australian aviation and of Qantas history."

Future Fund chairman David Gonski remembered meeting Mr Strong 20 years ago at a function where he was easy to spot because he was the only person wearing a bow tie, and the "only person with a scrum of people around him".

"He was famous - I was not," Mr Gonski said.

Yet he recalled Mr Strong welcoming him warmly and giving of his time despite the demands as a high-profile businessman.

Mr Gonski met him for the last time for lunch in November, when Mr Strong talked about finishing up many of his commitments and focusing on new pursuits.

"Our community and our country have been robbed of a third chapter, and perhaps even more chapters, of the efforts of an enormously talented man," he said. "Whenever I spy a bow tie across a crowded room, or even in a street, my mind will remember a gentleman - a man who contributed enormously to Australia generally."

Mr Strong, 68, died in Sydney just over a week ago of lung complications from surgery. He leaves behind his wife, Jeanne-Claude, and his sons Nick and Sam.

Sam Strong told the service one of his father's enduring qualities was his generosity with advice; he had lost count of the number of people he had mentored.

Likewise, he said his father had a willingness to listen. "When you spoke to Dad, you felt like you were the only person in the world. I can't recall Dad ever being too busy to talk," he said.

Other attendees included former world motorcycle champion Casey Stoner, Sydney celebrity chief Neil Perry, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW Edmund Capon, Leighton chief financial officer Peter Gregg, UGL chairman Trevor Rowe and Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd.

Mr Strong's near five-decade career spanned several industries including aviation, law, retail and insurance. Apart from his role as Qantas CEO, his senior positions included chairman of Woolworths, IAG, Rip Curl and Kathmandu.

He shot to prominence running Australian Airlines in the 1980s, before taking the reins at Qantas in 1993. 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.

Born in Lismore in northern NSW, Mr Strong had a wide array of interests outside the corporate world, including parachuting, whitewater rafting, and the arts.

His arts contribution was recognised on Monday by a performance of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, director Paul Dyer and singer Bernadette Robinson.

Mr Strong served as chairman of the Australia Council for the Arts. He was also a director of Opera Australia, the Sydney Writers Festival and chairman of the Sydney Theatre Company, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Australia Business Arts Foundation. He also chaired the organising committee for the 2015 Cricket World Cup and V8 Supercars, and was a director of the Australian Grand Prix.

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