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the world will Call us Home

  1. http://www.thewest.com.au/20020629/business/tw-business-home-sto62170.html

    By Geoffrey Thomas




    AS WEEKS go, this has been a good one for Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon.

    On Monday, it was a 10 per cent lift in profit forecast, when most world airlines are battling to stem losses; on Tuesday it was a show-stopping announcement that John Travolta's love affair with Qantas would see him promoting the airline with his own Boeing 707.

    The markets were upbeat on the profit forecast and the world's media scrambled to give Qantas tens of millions of dollars of free exposure on its latest recruit.

    In fact, since Mr Dixon, 62, was appointed chief executive and managing director of Qantas in March 2001 there have been many good weeks.

    His management style, with a sharp commercial edge, is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor and friend James Strong, and that is great news for travellers.

    Under Mr Strong, Qantas"growth in the domestic market for some years was below GDP, which reflected Mr Strong's conservative approach.

    Mr Dixon, on the other hand, has a keen sense of what the public wants and defends his territory aggressively.

    Before joining Qantas in 1994, Mr Dixon worked at Ansett as director of marketing and industry sales and as general manager of marketing at TAA, which he re-badged as Australian Airlines.

    The fortunes of Australian Airlines, which Qantas bought, and Ansett were directly related to Mr Dixon's appointments, according to one former Ansett board member.

    "When he was at Australian he beat us up, so we poached him after Mr Strong left Australian," he said.

    Mr Dixon was responsible for Australian Airlines introducing business class in the early 1980s and for clawing back market share for Ansett in the early 1990s.

    But Mr Dixon's roots are far from the boardroom at Qantas. He is at heart a boy from the bush.

    Born in Wagga Wagga, he left school before his Leaving Certificate to take a cadetship at the Wagga Daily Advertiser but quickly rose to chief of staff before heading overseas.

    Back in Australia he did a stint at the Nabalco bauxite mine at Gove in the Northern Territory, where he met Mr Strong. Mr Dixon worked in liaison with the Aboriginal community, while Mr Strong was involved in industrial relations.

    Mr Dixon spent the next 13 years in the Australian Government Overseas Service in Australia and on postings to the Australian missions in The Hague, New York and San Francisco.

    Mr Strong, over a beer in New York, persuaded Mr Dixon to quit his position as information officer to come home to lobby politicians on behalf of Australian miners.

    Just two years later, Mr Dixon followed Mr Strong into TAA when Mr Strong was appointed chief executive. Mr Dixon's commercial savvy is impressive. He grabbed Peter Allen's song I Still Call Australia Home for Qantas, arranged the painting of some Qantas jets in Aboriginal art which was a sensation overseas and ambushed Ansett's standing as official airline at the Sydney Olympics with commercials using Australian sports stars who had sponsorship ties to Qantas.

    But his biggest coup came to him as he watched Christmas carols sung by the National Boys Choir on Christmas Eve.

    Next morning he rang John Singleton and set up the campaign that featured a choir singing Peter Allen's classic de facto Australian national song at six spectacular locations around the world.

    Mr Singleton protested it would cost a fortune but $3 million later, Qantas had one of the best advertising campaigns seen in Australia.

    Mr Dixon is charting an aggressive path of expansion for Qantas.

    So far his shopping list has committed the airline to 12 Airbus A380s, 13 A330s, six Boeing 747-400ERs, six Boeing 717s and 15 737-800s. Those are the firm orders - options total another 100 aircraft. The bill, which includes a host of interior upgrades, is a sobering $2.5 billion a year over the next four years.

    But each type will add significant value to the fleet while cutting costs, and add a sharp edge over competing airlines - and Mr Dixon has a few of those in his sights.

    He took over Impulse Airlines last year - giving Qantas a big stake in the low-fare, low-cost, non-unionised airline market - and Air New Zealand is the next target.

    Farther afield a stake in the giant American Airlines is on his radar, say analysts.

    An aggressive expansion policy means one thing to travellers: plenty of seats and affordable fares.

    "Mr Dixon is going to grow Qantas into a global powerhouse," says one analyst.

    A measure of that is Qantas being the first to sign a binding contract with Airbus for the world's biggest passenger aircraft, the A380.

    However, Qantas will not expand for expansion's stake.

    It has forged a ruthless reputation of pulling out of markets if the profits are not there.

    Korea and Malaysia are good examples, but Qantas is going back to those countries under its new low-cost banner Australian Airlines. This will make money in those price sensitive markets, say analysts.

    But Mr Dixon believes the Federal Government needs to think globally if Qantas is to realise its full potential,

    "We must be able to access global financial markets to lift our share price and secure the best interest rates," he says.

    Qantas wants the Government to ease the Qantas Sale Act to allow foreign ownership to exceed 49 per cent. Analysts say that will push the share price to $6.50 from yesterday's close of $4.60.

    BUT the boy from the bush, whose passion for Australia is matched only by his pas sion for his mates back in Wagga Wagga, says Qantas will always be Australian.

    "The board will always be Australian and our headquarters will be Sydney," he says.

    However, Mr Dixon sounds a note of warning.

    "People are sometimes startled when I say the future of Qantas is not inevitable. We have no inherent right to continue," he cautions.

    "Qantas, like everyone else, has to adapt to survive in the emerging world aviation order."

    But with the street sense that gets Travolta beating the Qantas drum, there is little doubt that Mr Dixon will keep Qantas staying alive.

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