Qantas chair Leigh Clifford got the Todd Sampson treatment

The decade-long reign of former Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford ended on Friday at the airline’s annual meeting in Brisbane. In recent days it’s been parsed to within an inch of its former life; still, humour us a couple of annotations to the standing record before it’s filed away for posterity.

The cosiness of Clifford’s predecessor Margaret Jackson with Alan Joyce‘s predecessor Geoff Dixon (culminating in the failed but board and management-backed takeover bid by private equity in 2006) was notable to the market in the heady days before the global financial crisis. And when Clifford, a noted pugilist, picked the (then) less-assured Joyce over Peter Gregg and John Borghetti, there was widespread dread that the former Rio Tinto boss intended to operate as a non-executive chair in name only. How misplaced that fear was.

Not only didn’t Big Leigh interfere as Joyce wobbled dreadfully through his early years as chief executive (think “capital light” flat-bed-only subsidiaries based in Malaysia or Singapore right through to begging for a sovereign debt guarantee), Clifford didn’t himself wobble one bit, even as foam emanated from the mouths of institutional investors (and through it, much to Joyce’s thoroughly undignified chagrin, the commentariat) and when it would’ve been entirely reasonable to oscillate wildly. As we speak, Telstra chairman John Mullen and CEO Andy Penn are both praying history can repeat itself.

Indeed, so composed was Clifford that he spent the December 2013 morning that Standard and Poor’s downgraded Qantas to a junk credit rating playing 18 holes at Royal Melbourne. The share price down 15.3 per cent that week; the damage done, he played another 18 after lunch, too!

And so to another telling and as yet untold anecdote (one we’ve been dying to tell for a loooong time):

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Back in June 2016, Qantas’ fortunes radically reversed (in near perfect unison with the global spot price of crude), the entire board was touring California’s Bay Area on its then obligatory Silicon Valley off-site. At Tesla’s campus in Palo Alto, the airline’s directors were split off into trios to test drive the Model S P100D (the world’s fastest ever production car at 0-60 miles in 2.5 seconds). Joyce and Clifford were paired off with non-executive director Todd Sampson, a notable thrill-seeker, having climbed Everest and gone so far as to create TV series called Body Hack and Redesign My Brain. Naturally, the Toddster took first shift behind the wheel. Joyce rode shotgun.

Instructed by Elon Musk‘s local lieutenant to (quite rightly) explore the outer limits of the vehicle’s capabilities on the in-house track (its twists and turns, from a bird’s eye view, redolent of a lower intestine’s), the Canadian ad man was nothing if not obedient. On the back seat, by all reports – including his own retelling – Big Leigh’s unflappability abandoned him, the only oscillation those of his pallor between deep hues of purple and green.

And screeching to a halt back at the grid, Clifford was hacking all the way to the facilities before the chequered flag came down, the only redesigning being done on the Toto porcelain with the contents of his stomach. A proper Jackson Pollock masterpiece, the janitors still marvel. Suffice to say, Joyce remains chief executive today primarily because he followed the tersest instructions to drive the second lap like Bambi on benzos. Outstanding.

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