The final call for Alan Joyce

The union-busting Qantas chief executive has one last card up his sleeve before he runs out of time.

It's crunch time for Qantas boss Alan Joyce... his admission this week the airline's much vaunted ‘Asian Strategy’ is now not likely for 'two or three years' puts a remarkable career well and truly on the line.

Bereft of Asian airline partners, berated by unions and customers alike, he has one last hope... the market is poised to reward Qantas with a stock price 'bounceback' worth up to 20 per cent on top of today's $1.75 in the year ahead. Remarkably, that's the consensus price target pencilled in for Qantas in the next 12 months.

Crucially, though Joyce is persona non grata with the unions and many airline customers, he retains the backing of his board, key brokers and the investment ratings agencies.

Indeed this is where he differs hugely from the market's other standout struggler, Paul Zahra of David Jones, who has institutional investors openly questioning his tenure.

In common with Joyce, Zahra also runs a damaged brand, an iconic household name once loved by customers and shareholders alike. But when faced with 'a death of a thousand cuts' in the retail business Zahra has chosen an incremental improvement strategy. The David Jones survival option contrasts dramatically with Joyce's audacious IR move to ground his entire airline for three days: a gamble that has been an unmistakable strategic success and has gained Joyce an immense personal following among the business community.

But Joyce wears this crown a little uncomfortably: unlike his hard men predecessors – Chris Corrigan of one-time waterfront reformer Patrick Corporation comes to mind – Joyce simply can not be categorised.

Typically, Joyce has made an unexpected move at this pivotal point in his career. As the carrier seeks to find new favour in the wider world still shocked by the ruthlessness of the 'lockout', Joyce has chosen the unlikely outlet of men's fashion magazine GQ to offer a revealing interview.

He talks about being openly gay... hardly unprecedented but highly unusual for an Australian top line chief executive. He describes growing up in a tough part of Ireland: Tallaght, his notorious boyhood home pitched on the outskirts of Dublin by a corrupt local government was a byword in Ireland for mass unemployment and social disadvantage. And just to top it off he discusses a battle with prostate cancer.

He might have added it’s pretty difficult running one of the world’s most disadvantaged airlines from a unionised corner of the globe with a larger-than-life chairman (Leigh Clifford) and a former chief executive (James Strong) peering at you across the board table.

But the wider message of course is that Joyce can survive anything.

Anyone who has met this unassuming elfin figure who can switch from ice-cold analysis to charming raconteur in the space of a minute could tell you that: just ask the parliamentarians who sat in November's Senate inquiry into Qantas and ended up chortling along with Joyce when they were meant to be running an inquisition.

Crucially, in the latest batch of results as Joyce spelled out the endless litany of bad news for the airline – cutting jobs, slicing routes, postponing plane orders – he did not offer ‘guidance’ for the term ahead.

Remember it was over-ambitious guidance from Zahra that triggered the embarrassing two-day suspension of David Jones which preceded a horror 40 per cent profit plunge announcement on Wednesday.

With ASIC's rampaging Greg Medcraft on red alert for any other listed companies which might have committed similar sins, Joyce and Qantas now have a unique opportunity to surprise on the upside.

2012 was an appalling 12 months for Qantas yet it managed a revenue lift of 6 per cent and would have had a respectable profit except it was cut in half by the lockout costs. This year it is highly unlikely to meet such a hurdle again – that means the $195 million attributed to 'grounding costs' will automatically return to the bottom line.

With the pilots outmanoeuvred it will not be the unions that will halt a Qantas rebound. The most obvious suspect is rising gas prices... unless, that is, Joyce does something else we don't see coming.

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