Qantas Airways Irish chief Alan Joyce helps gay marriage take off

Dubliner named world’s most influential LGBT business executive in annual listing

Influential: Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Influential: Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

 

Irishman Alan Joyce does not shy away from a fight when standing up for his beliefs. In March, the Qantas Airways chief executive’s advocacy of same-sex marriage earned him a rebuke from Peter Dutton, the Australian immigration minister, who accused him and fellow executives of using shareholder funds to “bully” the government. He demanded they “stick to their knitting”.

Two months later, Tony Overheu, an opponent of legalising gay marriage, smashed a lemon meringue pie in Mr Joyce’s face as he delivered a speech.

Mr Joyce, the most prominent openly gay business leader in Australia and top of this year’s FT/OUTstanding LGBT Executives list, has continued to lobby for same-sex marriage during the country’s postal survey on the issue, the result of which is expected on November 15th.

He gave A$1m (US$780,000) of his own money to the campaign for a Yes vote which, if successful, will cause the government to table legislation this year to introduce the reform.

Mr Joyce’s partner Shane Lloyd is working on the Yes campaign team. “There’s a clear business case for diversity in the workplace, whether it’s diversity in terms of gender or background or sexuality,” says Mr Joyce.

“A range of different, informed perspectives around a table is going to deliver better decisions, it’s as simple as that. And we’ve certainly seen it at Qantas.”

Mr Joyce’s stance has helped to marshal support for legalising same-sex marriage in boardrooms across Australia. Opinion polls suggest the Yes campaign is winning the argument and marriage equality could be implemented next year.

“People like Alan have been a catalyst for change,” says Tiernan Brady, leader of the Yes campaign. “Taking a leadership position can be hard and people have tried to slap Alan down.”

Mr Joyce, 51, has stood his ground in Australia’s cut-throat political and corporate culture since taking the top job at Qantas in 2008. The Irish-born executive has been labelled devious by politicians, derided as a wrecker by trade unions and mocked as a leprechaun in the media. He has rarely retreated, though, whether in business or personal battles.

In 2011, Mr Joyce grounded the Qantas fleet for several days during a dispute with trade unions over pay and conditions. That same year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, aged 45. After treatment, he was back at his desk within weeks.

Toughest challenge

In 2014, Mr Joyce faced the toughest challenge of his career when a combination of domestic competition, high costs and surging oil prices caused him to announce 5,000 job losses at Qantas, which plunged to a record A$2.8bn loss.

He was criticised for undertaking a bruising seats war with Virgin Australia, in which he crossed swords with its chief executive John Borghetti, a former Qantas executive who left when Mr Joyce took the top job.

Politicians and trade unions called on Mr Joyce to resign, but he defied his opponents and put in place a turnround strategy. This helped Qantas to post a record net profit after tax of A$1.03bn in the year to June 30, 2016. Qantas shares have risen sixfold to A$6.39 since December 2013.

Mr Joyce grew up in Tallaght, a working-class suburb of Dublin. His mother was a cleaner; his father, who was a supervisor in a tobacco factory, took extra jobs to pay the mortgage. All four sons went to university and Mr Joyce earned degrees in maths, physics and management.

He worked for Aer Lingus before moving to Australia in 1996 to work at Ansett Australia. In 2000 he transferred to Qantas.

He has been in the top job at the “Flying Kangaroo” for nearly a decade and shows little sign of moving on.

“As long as I’m enjoying the job and the board and the shareholders want me to continue, which I hope is still the case, I’m going nowhere soon and that will continue,” he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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