Outside Australia’s tight airline c-suite circles, incoming Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka may not be well known. But within the industry, Ms Hrdlicka is a familiar and longstanding corporate figure. The fifty-something made her name running Jetstar before leaving to work briefly in a different industry. Now, Ms Hrdlicka is back on familiar turf and what she has planned for Virgin Australia has everyone guessing.
A Kansas girl turned airline CEO
Originally a Kansas girl, Ms Hrdlicka was educated at Colorado College before picking up an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. In 1994, like so many before her, she washed up in Australia, working in consulting.
Ten years ago, Jayne Hrdlicka landed a job at Qantas. Two years later, she moved into the top job at Qantas’ low-cost subsidiary, Jetstar. Here’s where it gets interesting. Ms Hrdlicka ran Jetstar for six years. Jetstar was already doing well, and the new CEO capitalized on that, building one of the most successful low-cost airlines in the world. The Jetstar boss also got a reputation for being a very tough negotiator, especially on IR issues. The mere mention of her name still spoils morning tea at unionized workplaces all around Australia.
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It’s fair to say local airline unions were not sorry when Jayne Hrdlicka left Jetstar in 2018. She left on good terms with Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, and reportedly remains matey, so much so she went to his wedding last year. After Jetstar, Ms Hrdlicka went on to run the dairy group, a2 Milk.
That business, far removed from airlines, was soaring on the back of massive demand from China for fresh, premium milk and dairy products. But her tenure there was tumultuous, and there was frequent corporate chitchat about how well it was working out. Many said it wasn’t a great fit between culture and the individual. Either way, after a year and a half, Jayne Hrdlicka left the milk business.
In addition to her new gig, Jayne Hrdlicka is currently the chairman of the board for Tennis Australia and, in July, joined the board of Hawaiian Airlines.
A tough negotiator who has kept everyone guessing
It was around that time Jayne Hrdlicka’s name began bobbing up, allied with Bain Capital’s bid for Virgin Australia. She was the exec with local knowledge ‘advising’ the out of town private equity crowd. Bain went on to win their bid for Virgin Australia. Since then, exactly what Ms Hrdlicka was doing there has kept local business columnists guessing.
Her association with Bain Capital tainted their negotiations with local unions. The unions represented Virgin Australia employees, the biggest pool of Virgin Australia creditors. Bain Capital needed the creditors’ okay to get their bid over the line.
For a while, Jayne Hrdlicka got sidelined. Bain wheeled out the more union-friendly incumbent Virgin Australia CEO, Paul Scurrah. Mr Scurrah is well versed in keeping workforces and unions onside. He had a big fan base within the Virgin Australia workforce. Paul Scurrah’s role in the ongoing negotiations and his association with Bain Capital gave their bid a lot of credibility with many stakeholders.
A better fit for Virgin Australia?
Now Bain Capital have got what they wanted, the tone and messaging is changing. Formerly friendly, relations between Bain Capital and the surviving Virgin Australia management team have soured. It looks like ongoing operating costs at Virgin Australia will get pared to the bone, sending Virgin Australia to the budget end of the airline market. That’s not exactly what the bid or Paul Scurrah said would happen.
But Ms Hrdlicka is well versed in running lean and mean airlines, arguably making her a better fit for Virgin Australia and its future. Those who know her describe her as personally likable but also pragmatic. As her interactions with Australia’s unions prove, she’s not afraid of a barny.
It’s always worth noting Jayne Hrdlicka’s new job means Qantas alumni have held the CEO’s role at Virgin Australia for eight-plus years out of the last ten. John Borghetti lost out on the top job at Qantas to Alan Joyce in 2008. Soon after, Mr Borghetti jumped ship to Virgin Australia, going on to run that airline. But there was no love lost between the two men. The dynamic between Ms Hrdlicka and Mr Joyce is altogether different. Their friendship might see a reset (or at least a thaw) in relations between Australia’s two biggest airlines.