Few Australian business leaders today can profess a career that spans several decades on the international stage and hence speak with fine authority on how Australia can best leverage itself to engage the powerhouses of Asia.
Strong academic credentials underpin a career at the top level of corporate life. Hailing from the University of Western Australia, he went on as Rhodes Scholar in 1974 to earn a doctorate in Engineering Science at Oxford University. Joining the Swire Group in 1979, transport and aviation began to circumscribe his career. Through the Swire Group-owned Cathay Pacific, he worked extensively in Hong Kong, Korea and Japan accumulating rich experience in dealing with diverse cultures and differing attitudes towards business practice. A series of high-profile and extremely challenging appointments flesh out the rich tapestry of his illustrious career: Managing Director and CEO of Cathay Pacific Airways (1992-1996), Executive Chairman of Ansett Airlines (1997-2000) and Chief Executive of British Airways (2000-2005). The extraordinary turn-around from a massive loss-making British Airways operation to profit in a climate of world turmoil won admiration and respect in spades. In 2005, The British Government conferred unto him a coveted Knighthood for services to civil aviation.
His career from 2005 onwards has diversified into a wide range of senior appointments which reflects his stature as one of Australia’s most respected executives.
Amongst his many multi-faceted board roles, he is presently non-executive Chairman (Aust & NZ) of J.P. Morgan and non-executive Chairman of Lion together with non-executive directorships with News Corporation, CLPH (China Light & Power Holdings) and John Swire & Sons.
As inaugural Chairman of Infrastructure Australia, his board is chartered to provide high-level advice to State and Federal Ministers and local government on a range of complex matters relating to transport.
After his alma mater, Western Australia, he fondly regards Victoria, his second home where is he is Chairman of the Victorian Major Events Company. Sir Rod serves as President of the Australia Japan Business Cooperation Committee.
Earlier this year, he was bestowed with the honour of Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to business and commerce. It was reported that on the day of his appointment, he chose to watch his beloved sport, cricket, of which he excelled in his youth in Western Australia.
The Asian Executive interviewed Sir Rod as part of a special 2013 cover edition.
TAE: So much is said around media and government circles about the need for Australia to become more Asia literate or Asia capable. You have spent much of your formative years working in Asia. What sense to you make about this new imperative? What should young executives do to make themselves relevant in this new era of Asia engagement?
RE: My sense of the situation is that Australia’s engagement with Asia is a mixed one. Our three major trading partners, China, Japan and Korea and so we are seen in an economic sense to be in the heart of Asia. Geographically, we are on the edge of Asia. Culturally, we are a very diverse society with a strong Anglo history but merging Asian sensitivities in all that we do in daily lives. What are ways for Australians to become more Asia literate? I think the single most important thing is for young Australians, who have the inclination, to try and actually work in Asia. When I was a youth, young Australians finishing school or university tended to go to Europe to travel, study or work.
Today’s young generation now may have great career options by considering Asia. During my early career, I spent eighteen or so years working in Asia. Countries such as Korea, Japan and cities like Hong Kong became very familiar places to me. The Swire Group and its subsidiary, Cathay Pacific was the launching pad for my career. Being an Asian parent company with connections in various Asian cities was a huge learning experience for me.
Today, I am still on the board of John Swire & Sons (Pty) Limited, which is the Australian arm of the Swire Group. So I encourage young men and women to work overseas whether it’s Singapore or Hong Kong or China or wherever. If they can improve upon or acquire some of the local language skills as well, that makes the experience even more worthwhile.
TAE: Your time at the helm of British Airways was during a period of a great international turmoil. There was 9/11, the Gulf War, SARS and the rise of cut-price airlines with their new low-cost fleets. Despite being a great brand, the airline was suffering huge losses with no obvious end in sight. You are largely credited with turning around the airline into a profit making operation. Can you take us back to that period in your career?
RE: Yes, it was a very difficult period. The competition was ferocious from all directions. New no-frill carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet the rise of Asian and Middle Eastern carriers and various domestic and short-haul operations to name a few. The competition really galvanized us into action. My board and I really had to take some tremendously difficult decisions. Restructuring our business was an essential part of our strategy to rejuvenate our business and make it more relevant. The other aspect of the changing times was how technology irrevocably changed our industry. The advent of online booking systems, self-serve kioks for check-ins meant considerable capital investment into new systems that would change the way we do travel.
A big part of the ethos I took into British Airways as its head was the need to reinforce the lessons of my eighteen years with the Swire Group and Cathay Pacific. The importance of our core strengths, customer service, safety first and operational integrity. British Airways had great products and great people and therefore a great message to take to its customer base. I think I did something which Lord Colin Marshall, had begun two decades earlier when he occupied the role of British Airways as Chief Executive. In essence, he made the focus of the business the customer and to drove the customer service ethos into every facet of that business. This was the lesson that that had to be re-learnt with new vigour in a new era. Yes, we had to make some really painful decisions along the way, and as I said, those painful decisions were driven in part by increased competition, in part by the new technologies and the opportunities they provided. Complacency can be an issue with any business and standing still is not an option. Your competitors don’t stand still and either you move ahead or else they overtake you.