Strong made Australia a better place for all of us – The Australian
“What could be worse than coming to the end of your life and realising that you haven’t fully participated?”
In 1995, James Strong chose this quote from Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women, to answer a journalist’s question about what lay behind his tireless contribution to business, sport and the arts in Australia.
Certainly the breadth and depth of James’s participation in our national life defies any attempt to summarise in a few short sentences. Quite simply, James has made Australia a better place for all of us.
In aviation circles, James Strong will be remembered as a giant of aviation history and of Qantas history.
In 1985 he was approached and appointed general manager of then government-owned Trans-Australia, having worked as a senior lawyer and an executive and lobbyist in the mining industry. He was typically modest about his credentials. “I didn’t know anything about airlines, but they convinced me it didn’t matter,” he later recalled.
James quickly transformed the airline into a leaner, more customer focused operation under a new name, Australian Airlines. Under his leadership, Australian Airlines invested in smaller airlines and incorporated their operations into a network of feeder routes throughout regional Australia. This was the genesis of what became QantasLink, our vibrant Qantas regional airline.
After leaving Australian Airlines in 1989, Strong was instrumental in the merger of several large law firms to create Corrs Chambers Westgarth. He put this experience to good use as a board Director of Qantas from 1991, and then as Qantas CEO from October 1993, when he was faced with the daunting challenge of merging Qantas and Australian Airlines into a single entity prior to full privatisation.
James defined his leadership style as “out and about”. He was a gentleman and a pragmatist, always focused on people and service culture rather than ‘systems’ or ‘theories’ of management.
Both before and after the Qantas float, there were difficult changes to be made to lower costs and drive competition. But by 1996, Qantas had taken domestic market share leadership from Ansett. When James retired as Qantas CEO in 2001, revenue had reached a record $10.2 billion, and the board had agreed to renew the Qantas fleet for the 21st century with the ground-breaking A380 aircraft.
James rejoined the Qantas board as a non-executive Director in July 2006 where he continued to make a major contribution to Qantas’s success. He was always a generous source of advice, wisdom and counsel.
For me personally, James represented the very best of corporate leadership in Australia. He was a tremendous mentor and friend. He was greatly respected and loved by the people of Qantas.
His loss will be felt by the many institutions and organisations who depended upon his skills and leadership, and by all of us who had the privilege of working with him.
We can only be grateful that such a tremendous citizen and leader chose to participate so generously in our national life. He leaves Australia a better place, richer in so many aspects, as a result of his unique contribution.