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The Queen of Qantas
[March 05, 2006]

The Queen of Qantas

(Daily Mail (London) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 5--But you're a woman! It is not the sort of thing to say to someone who overcame sexist attitudes early in her career to become one of the world's top executives. But Margaret Jackson took it with good grace.

Jackson, chairman of Australian airline Qantas, was stopped and searched by a security guard at Los Angeles airport last year. He discovered blueprints for a new aircraft in her briefcase, raising fears that she was a terrorist. The guard asked her why she had the plans. Jackson told him: "I'm the chairman of an airline. I'm the chairman of Qantas." Cue his surprised comment.

Employing the tact that has stood her in good stead as she rose through the ranks of Australian business, Jackson proved her identity. And just to underline her point, she quickly wrote him a note on Qantas-headed paper, saying: "Dear Bill, this is from the chairman of Qantas, who is a woman."

Jackson says such examples of sexism are rare these days, though when starting out in accountancy in the Seventies she was rejected by leading firms in her home city of Melbourne because they did not employ women.

A more enlightened company, then called Price Waterhouse, took her on and she began a career that saw her rise through the accountancy ranks and secure a clutch of high-profile directorships at top Australian companies.

She has been a pioneer for businesswomen in Australia, becoming only the second to head a major listed company, and despite early rejections, she says her career has only climbed since then.

"If there is a glass ceiling, I haven't found it yet," says the 52-year-old mother of two teenagers who is married to lawyer Roger Donazzan.

Jackson believes that Australian women now have far more choices in business than when she started. "I have a daughter of 18 and I look at the number of her opportunities. Her generation have many more chances to succeed," she says.

Despite her pioneering role, she is a reluctant champion for women, appearing more a supporter of meritocracy and diversity of age and experience.

Interviews with her are rare and Financial Mail met her in her capacity as chairwoman of Business Club Australia, an organisation that promotes business using sporting events (see right).

One attribute that has helped her career is a steely toughness, which one can glimpse behind her friendly demeanour.

The future of Qantas -- known as The Kangaroo after its tailfin symbol -- is a subject that brings out her combative side.

One bugbear is that the airline faces increased competition from rivals such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates -- state-owned carriers that do not have the same commercial realities as stock market-listed Qantas.

"Australia is the most open aviation market in the world," says Jackson. "Singapore and Emirates are able to write off assets much quicker than we can because of their capital structure."

Something that would help Qantas compete would be an injection of foreign capital, but ownership rules prevent overseas investors owning more than 50 per cent of the company. Jackson, who thinks airline consolidation is inevitable, would like the Australian government to waive or lift the restrictions. "The government understands the situation and it is being discussed," she says.

Analysts believe that if the curbs were lifted, Qantas would be snapped up by an overseas predator -- probably Singapore Airlines, something the Australian government is unlikely to encourage.

One potential buyer that will not be calling is British Airways, a member with Qantas of the Oneworld airline alliance. BA took a 25 per cent stake in Qantas in 1993, but sold it in 2004, and while both sides say they enjoy a good commercial relationship, industry watchers suggest that cracks have appeared.

BA has pulled out of the London-to-Melbourne route and despite initial expectations it has found no room for Qantas at the giant Terminal 5 being built at Heathrow. The Kangaroo will be in Terminal 3 instead. Jackson says she is "very disappointed not to get space there."

She knows BA's former head and fellow Australian, Rod Eddington, but has yet to meet new chief executive Willie Walsh.

When she does meet Walsh -- notorious for his cost-cutting at former employer Aer Lingus -- they are likely to find a lot in common since Jackson has attacked costs aggressively at Qantas. The need to keep cutting was underlined last month when the airline announced a ten per cent drop in half-time profits due to rocketing fuel costs. About 600 non-management jobs went.

The airline has outsourced operations and plans to subcontract servicing to the Far East has raised safety fears at Qantas which, famously, has never suffered a fatal crash. "Qantas would never compromise on safety," says Jackson.

To boost finances, Qantas has started a domestic budget airline, Jetstar, and later this year will launch Jetstar International with a fleet of Airbuses.

Qantas, the world's second-oldest airline after KLM, is also developing businesses such as Qantas Holidays, which has sold 30,000 packages to the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

The airline has been particularly upset by a doubling of landing charges at Sydney Airport in the past four years. Jackson describes them as "outrageous."

The airport is owned by Australian bank Macquarie, which recently dropped a hostile bid for the London Stock Exchange.

She described the relationship with Macquarie as one of healthy tension and added: "We have kicked up a fuss and registered our discontent."

Though Jackson has been at Qantas for five years, she says: "I have no plans to hang up my booties."

She also rebuts criticism that Qantas service levels are not as good as those of rivals. "In the Forties and Fifties, aviation was an exclusive experience, but it has become something people take for granted," she says. "In some cases, people pay more for the taxi from the airport than for the flight.

"I am proud of the 38,000 people employed by Qantas. I am quite an emotional person and sometimes letters praising the airline bring tears to my eyes."

But if she thought standards were slipping, Jackson would address them in her own direct style. Just ask Bill.

LOVE BLOSSOMS AMID THE SPORT AT 'DATING' AGENCY: For a country so obsessed with sport as Australia, it is no surprise it has turned to big sporting events to boost the profile of home-grown businesses.

Business Club Australia was set up ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games to try to forge links between domestic and overseas firms.

Foreign companies were invited to meet Australian businesses against the spectacular backdrops of the Olympics and the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

The concept has proved a hit. So has the group's business matching service -- a sort of dating agency for companies looking to find the perfect partner.

Relationships struck through the group have generated deals worth 675 million. One firm to benefit is veterinary products group Interpath Pty, owned by Dan and Corina Bright. The firm makes arthritis treatments for dogs under the Sasha's Blend brand.

Dan, whose company is based near Ballarat, Victoria, says: "We met potential overseas partners at the Rugby World Cup and now we export to 16 countries."

In its latest incarnation, Business Club Australia: Melbourne 2006 has attracted 4,563 member companies split between home-grown businesses and firms abroad, including 73 from the UK.

There will be more than 30 club events during the Commonwealth Games.

Club chairwoman Margaret Jackson says: "We think it works well."

Future Olympics hosts Beijing and London are taking a close look at the concept.

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