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Century-old Qantas picks its first female CEO

Crowd, Person, Adult Reuters/AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi
Newly appointed Qantas Group CEO, and current CFO, Vanessa Hudson speaks to the media during a news conference at Qantas Head Office in Sydney, on May 2, 2023

Australia’s flagship carrier, Qantas Airways Ltd, has named finance chief Vanessa Hudson as its next chief executive officer, making her the first woman to lead the century-old airline.

In November, Hudson will take over from Alan Joyce, whose 15 years in the job has made him the longest-serving current CEO of a major Australian company, and a towering figure in the global aviation industry.

Hudson will be one of the few female executives leading a major company in Australia, although rival carrier Virgin Australia also has a woman as its CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka.

“I come with an understanding of this organisation that is very deep,” Hudson told reporters in her first news conference as CEO designate.

“I think that the experience that I’ve had, and also recently, in helping manage through Covid, places me in a great position to look forward in terms of all of the investments that are coming with new aircraft, but also continuing to invest in our customers.”

Qantas chairman Richard Goyder said Hudson’s handling of the finance and treasury portfolio during the Covid-19 crisis was outstanding, putting her ahead of almost 40 candidates globally that the airline had short-listed for the job.

Qantas shares were down 2.4 percent on Tuesday against a broader market decline of 0.25 percent.

“Vanessa has been market-facing as CFO since October 2019, which will have prepared her well for the very public role as Qantas CEO,” RBC Capital Markets analyst Owen Birrell said in a note.

Hudson joined Qantas 28 years ago and has held several senior roles there, including CFO, chief customer officer and senior vice president for the Americas and New Zealand.

Though men still account for far more top executive roles in Australian-listed companies, a growing number of high-profile CEO roles are occupied by women, including at the number one investment bank, Macquarie Group; top telecoms firm Telstra Corp; oil and gas giant Woodside and financial services firm AMP.

Hudson said she was proud to lead the airline.

“On a personal note, I have two young daughters, 21 and 18, and I’ve always been a mother who’s wanted to lead by example and to listening to their reflections last night was incredibly meaningful to me,” she said.

Succession plans

Joyce, 56, served as Qantas CEO during turbulent times as he helped to navigate the airline through the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, fluctuating fuel prices, and growing competition in the aviation sector.

The “flying kangaroo”, as its often known, faced a reputational crisis during the pandemic for flight cancellations, cutting jobs and accepting financial support from the government.

Hudson said the airline has been working to rebuild trust among its customers. But she has an uphill task to build ties with the unions, who have had a poor and often bitter relationship with Joyce.

Joyce hired bodyguards in 2011 after receiving death threats over his unprecedented grounding of the airline’s entire fleet during an industrial dispute.

The announcement is a golden opportunity for a reset at Qantas, Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) National Secretary Michael Kaine said in a statement.

This year, Qantas swung to a record first-half profit from a loss, as raging travel demand from a population shaking off years of pandemic restrictions jacked up fares and profits.

Joyce, who is gay, has been a vocal supporter of campaigns for marriage equality, the recognition of Aboriginal people in the nation’s constitution and for women’s progress in the corporate world.

“There’s not many female CEOs in the worldwide aviation industry and it’s a credit to this country that a gay man was appointed 15 years ago to be CEO of the company, and now we have the first female accredited to the board,” Joyce said at the news conference.

Joyce said he and his husband would stay in Sydney, focus on community involvement and look forward to other opportunities that may come up.

Qantas said Hudson would continue in her current role until taking over as Qantas’ 13th CEO at the 2023 annual general meeting.