Conversation with a chairman Margaret Jackson Cover Story

Tuesday, 01 July 2003


    Qantas chairman Margaret Jackson is at the thin and pointy end of an airline industry that is experiencing unusual economic turbulence. Buckling up and holding tight until the world decides that flying to other countries is once again safe, is not an option. She tells Geoffrey Stackhouse what the Qantas board is doing to cope with the fear of flying.

    Conversation with a chairman Margaret Jackson

    Qantas chairman Margaret Jackson is at the thin and pointy end of an airline industry that is experiencing unusual economic turbulence. Buckling up and holding tight until the world decides that flying to other countries is once again safe, is not an option. She tells Geoffrey Stackhouse what the Qantas board is doing to cope with the fear of flying.

    Margaret Jackson has been navigating turbulent skies since her appointment nearly three years ago. The oxygen masks have dropped a few times and she has chaired more emergency board meetings during her time at the helm than most companies face in their lifetime.

    In quick succession the Qantas board has had to deal with the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, the collapse of Ansett, the war in Afghanistan, the Bali bombings, Iraq, SARS and a recent attempted hijacking.

    All while the aviation industry is going through a period of unprecedented change that has seen established competitors like Ansett and Swiss Air consigned to history.

    But Jackson – awarded Companion of the Order of Australia in the recent honours list – thrives on the challenges and believes that the true test of a board is how it performs in a crisis. "When the share price is doing well a board is often rated outstandingly. But when the company is not doing so well, that's when the board is usually working very hard. And it's often a greater test of the individual," she said.

    Jackson believes her greatest achievement so far at Qantas has been surviving the issues of September 11.

    On September 12 2001, as Australia woke up to the news of the terrorist attacks in the US, the Qantas board was meeting to consider the ramifications of the attacks. Directors also had to decide if they would put in a bid for Ansett.

    And as if that wasn't enough to deal with, Jackson chaired the meeting from the Monash Medical Centre while her father had emergency heart surgery.

    "That time was personally very challenging and very challenging for the company. What I didn't realise then was that that day would be just like every other day for the next six months. We had to swallow wisdom pills at a rapid rate and make brave, bold decisions in a time horizon that the company had never had to deal with before," said Jackson.

    Jackson believes the Qantas board has a tremendous chemistry which has enabled directors to perform so well in such difficult times. "They are an interesting mix of people with diverse experience in diverse industries. And all individually quite brave," she said.

    "We don't have the luxury to sit around for years and work out what we are going to do, we have to decide today what we are doing tomorrow."

    They had an unusual bonding experience while attending a meeting in New Zealand earlier this year. A hotel fire sent the entire board, and senior management, onto the street at 1am where "we stood about in jim-jams and dressing gowns from 1am until 3am". They reconvened later more formally attired for the board meeting.

    Despite her huge commitment to the Qantas board, Jackson finds time to sit on the boards of the ANZ Banking Group Limited, Billabong International Limited and John Fairfax Holdings Limited. She also serves on a number of other boards with a strong emphasis on medical research and is also chair of Methodist Ladies' College in Victoria.

    And that's without mentioning her proudest achievement – her son and daughter aged 18 and 15 who she describes as "unique, challenging and wonderful people". Regardless of the demands on her time, Jackson ensures she participates in the "daily dramas of parenting".

    "Children are a great leveler. No matter who you are or what you do you are still their mum," she added.

    Jackson has tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and to protect them both, she zealously ensures she finds time for herself. "You need to stay fit and healthy, and recharge the batteries to have energy for everyone else. It's easy to fill the diary and go from appointment to appointment, but I schedule time to go for a walk and think, or to sit at my desk and think. Time out, time to reflect, time to do nothing."

    Paradoxically, Jackson's heavy work load, with the diverse range of boards, is another source of renewal. Billabong is a young, fun, and high energy operation. Immersing herself in the challenges of this trendy surfing company is a constant reminder that there is life outside the turbulent world of aviation.

    "Aviation can give you a dismal view of the world, and then you get to Billabong," she said. "You see phenomenal growth, amazing fashion, the surf's up in Hawaii and Australia has done well in the world championships.

    "But then banking is a light relief sometimes from aviation too. I find the variety energising and you see something in one industry that has application for another."

    But how many boards is it possible to make a meaningful contribution to?

    Jackson rejects the idea that there is a standard formula to govern the number of directorships you can take on. For example that one can sit on up to six boards, but a chairmanship is worth two directorships, so you can be a chairman and also sit on four other boards or have two chairmanships and two boards and so on.

    "It's an individual judgment about the complexity of the company and the issues they face. The reality is that at any time in a 10-year cycle, at some point one of the companies will need more of its directors than normal. The test is when a board needs its directors are they there? And if they are then it doesn't matter if the director sits on 10 boards.

    "I don't think I could cope with three chairmanships like Qantas – but could any human being? They would have to be insane."

    Jackson's professional career spans 30 years, 20 of them spent serving on boards of major enterprises.

    At high school she planned to be an artist. At university she considered a teaching career before discovering the joys of accountancy during a summer internship with Price Waterhouse.

    "I just fell in love with commerce and business," she said. "The complexity of the world, and deals, and working with people. I remember my first audit with ICI, now Orica. I was tremendously excited to be meeting the MD, the tea lady and the librarian all in one day."

    Jackson's accountancy training has stood her in good stead, describing it as the "career you have when you don't know what career you want to have." The solid financial grounding, combined with her strong creative side, enable her to see patterns, pathways and solutions that others don't.

    She left the accounting profession in 1992 when she became a full time director, having worked as a partner with KPMG (Management Consulting) for several years as well as a stint with BDO Nelson Parkhill after leaving Price Waterhouse in 1977.

    Jackson's first major board appointment was in 1983 with the then Australian Telecommunications Corporation, now Telstra. She made history again when she became the first woman to chair a major publicly listed company – Qantas. But Jackson won't be drawn on the representation of women on boards, insisting that the real issue is diversity of talent at board level – and that boards are very very hungry for diversity.

    She points out that when she started in accountancy, less than 1 percent of graduates were women, with perhaps 5 percent in the legal profession. So 30 years down the track, there are simply not enough appropriately qualified women to serve on boards in equal numbers with men.

    But Jackson does see a clear trend emerging. To satisfy their appetite for diversity, boards are considering younger talent. Women are being appointed to boards tend to be in their 40s and 50s, while men are in their 50s and 60s.

    And at 50, Jackson still has a lot more to give. And not necessarily just for Qantas. While she has served on the Qantas board since 1992, and has no intention of moving on for the foreseeable future, she is always ready for a new challenge. But it's not likely to be in Canberra. At least not yet.

    Jackson is also passionate about medical research, and in particular the brain. She is a director of the Brain Research Institute, and treasurer and director of the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine.

    Why the interest in brain research?

    "I like thinking that makes your head hurt," she replied. "The brain is the final frontier, we know so little about it". Jackson sees her value with the medial organisations not so much in helping understand the brain, but rather in supporting the medically trained researchers to achieve with their work – helping attract funding, prioritise opportunities, and be a part of the global community of researchers."

    While Jackson's passion for "thinking about tomorrow and finding pathways" suggests her career plans are fairly well mapped out, for now the national carrier is giving her plenty of challenges to occupy her and it won't be clear skies ahead for Qantas for some time yet.

    The industry is still going through a global shake-out which Jackson predicts will result in fewer airlines, particularly fewer American airlines. But just how that will happen is not yet clear.

    "Governments don't easily allow airlines to fail," she said. "A very large number of the world's airlines are backed by governments and they don't all behave as if they are driven by a bottom line, they don't have a shortage of capital and they do have an agenda driven by something apart from commercial reality. When you are a fully listed company like Qantas that is a challenge."

    Her immediate priority for Qantas is to ensure that it has enough capital to be the airline we would want it to be for Australia. It's a big challenge, and one that Jackson relishes.


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