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The rise, fall and rise of Jayne Hrdlicka

The former boss of The a2 Milk Co and Jetstar has been tapped to head Virgin Australia. But the Kansas native has a steep path ahead, not only revamping the troubled airline but also smoothing the relationship with unions.

During the Virgin bidding process, she stopped attending union meetings with Bain on the request of the Transport Workers Union because it did not think her presence was constructive. While the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association noted the reason it had backed an offer by rival bidder Cyrus Capital Partners was that Bain had too many “Qantas methods”.

There has been a soured history for nearly a decade between Qantas (and by proxy Ms Hrdlicka) and the unions.

Prior to her 18-month stint as CEO of a2 Milk, Ms Hrdlicka was chief executive of Qantas offshoot carrier, Jetstar, and then became head of the airline's loyalty program.

She was seen as a rising star. Under her tenure at the budget carrier, it became one of the world's leading airlines and delivered a series of record profits.

I'm sure me being straight-talking now comes from growing up in an environment where that was just what you did.

— Jayne Hrdlicka

Ms Hrdlicka counts Qantas boss Alan Joyce as a mentor, having first met him when he was working as an executive at the now-defunct Ansett. She said in 2015: "I wouldn't have come to Qantas except for him and the very capable leaders he is."

Mr Joyce had used Bain & Co services, where Ms Hrdlicka was a consultant, in the late 1990s.

She always prided herself on her ability to solve problems and get the right expertise in to fix things. She has a stellar reputation as a forceful chief executive who gets things done.


While at a2 Milk, chairman David Hearn said, Ms Hrdlicka "ruffled a few feathers" along the way. But operationally, a2 Milk continued to gain under her leadership, and the stock price rose 40 per cent during her tenure, despite tensions with the board.

Jayne Hrdlicka, left, with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce in 2014, when she was running Jetstar.  Louise Kennerley

In an interview with The Australian Financial Review in 2019, Ms Hrdlicka attributed her habit of telling it like it is to her upbringing in Kansas in the American midwest.

"It was pretty straight. And I'm sure me being straight-talking now comes from growing up in an environment where that was just what you did," she said.

Ms Hrdlicka has come a long way since her first job as a checkout chick at retailer Dillons. She drove a red Honda Accord. Tennis great Billie Jean King was her idol. It was a happy life in small-town America. But the highly motivated young woman wanted more, so she left to attend Colorado College. She later graduated from business school at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

She had first worked with Bain & Co in the early 1990s in the US and moved to Australia in 1994 to turn around a company called Dynamic Marketing, against the advice of her parents. Australia was never in her long term plans but she met her husband here, and that changed everything.

Previous dispute

While Ms Hrdlicka gained experience working in the cut and thrust of corporate life, she also spent time in the boardroom of supermarket giant Woolworths, where she was a director from 2010 to 2016. She is also chair of Tennis Australia and a director at Hawaiian Airlines.


Like any many CEOs, Ms Hrdlicka is not without her detractors. The TWU has a long history of clashing with Ms Hrdlicka – mostly relating to a tenuous relationship with Qantas after a shutout and pay freeze during 2011. At the time, Ms Hrdlicka was head of strategy when Mr Joyce locked out the workforce, splintering the relationship with staff.

Tensions boiled over when Qantas announced it would cut 1000 employees and expanding into Asia – a move designed to return the airline to international profitability.

As news emerged on Thursday of Ms Hrdlicka's appointment, unions suspended talks with Bain over a new enterprise agreement. As part of its revamp plans, Bain will slash 3000 jobs and simplify to an all-Boeing 737 mainline fleet.

There is talk that Virgin’s remaining flight attendants and pilots may incur a 40 per cent pay cut, and reductions to work conditions resulting in much longer hours and time away from their families.

As Bain inches towards taking control of Virgin in early November, it's clear Ms Hrdlicka, who declined to comment, has another steep hill to climb. Not only will she have to steer the airline to new heights, it is apparent she will need to offer an olive branch to her detractors to get there.

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