Australia’s flagship carrier, Qantas Airways, has named finance chief Vanessa Hudson as its next chief executive officer, making her the first woman to lead the century-old airline.
Hudson will in November take over from Alan Joyce, whose 15 years in the job has made him one of the longest-serving CEOs of a major Australian company, and a high-profile figure in the global aviation industry.
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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 on Tuesday 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,” she said.
Hudson inherits an airline that is delivering record profits as travel rebounds. But she will also need to fix a reputational crisis facing the flying kangaroo, as passengers are frustrated with delays, cancellations, lost baggage and staffing issues.
Qantas Chairman Richard Goyder said Hudson’s handling of the finance and treasury portfolio during the COVID crisis put 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 telco 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.
Joyce, 56, served as Qantas CEO during turbulent times and is credited with navigating the airline through the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, fluctuating fuel prices, and a bruising market share battle with Virgin Australia domestically and international rivals such as Emirates and Etihad Airways.
Hudson said the airline has been working to rebuild trust among its customers. She will also work on building 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.
Qantas swung to a record first-half profit from a loss this year, 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 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,” he 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’s 13th CEO at the 2023 annual general meeting.