Virgin chair to attack ex-CEO on ABC’s Four Corners

written by Adam Thorn | June 29, 2020
A Qantas A380 and Virgin Australia A330 at YMML (Victor Pody)

The current chair of Virgin Australia, Elizabeth Bryan, will launch a withering broadside at former chief executive John Borghetti, claiming he built a good airline but not a “good enough business”.

In an interview set to screen on the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday night, Bryan will say, “When I arrived at the airline, a lot of frontline staff said, ‘Look, can we, can we please stop trying to be like Qantas because … Qantas is a great airline. You’re never going to beat Qantas at Qantas’ game.”

Borghetti took on the top role at Virgin at 2010 and served until 2019, and was best known for moving the airline away from its low-cost Virgin Blue roots to becoming a full-service, international rival to Qantas.

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However, the changes led to years of losses, which culminated in the company moving into administration months ago.

Bryan’s comments are particularly stinging given she is still in the role and worked closely alongside Borghetti since her appointment in 2015.

She will say that Virgin was “hell-bent” on increasing market share but the plan failed because “you’ve got to be able to afford it. In the end, deep pockets win and Qantas is the deep pocket, not Virgin”.

The ABC reports that Borghetti declined an invitation to appear on the program, but defended moving the airline away from its low-cost routes, saying the plan was “the only strategy” possible.

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“Virgin had found itself placed in the middle between Jetstar and Qantas and it had outgrown the low-cost space but hadn’t quite penetrated the corporate space, so you needed to go one way or the other,” he said.

“You couldn’t go back to the basic low-cost carrier phase because your cost base was too high, so you only had one way to go and that was to attack Qantas and get the corporate market.”

Last week, Virgin Australia’s administrator confirmed Bain Capital had won the bidding war to acquire the airline.

The successful US investor is thought to be endorsing the current management’s plan to keep the airline as a mid-market hybrid, but with a more simplified business model.

Bain’s winning bid will now be put to creditors in August, who will vote to confirm the deal.

The TWU tentatively lent its support to winning bidder, saying it put forward “a solid bid to secure the administrator’s recommendation” and that the union would be happy to work with them.

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20 Comments

  • Richard

    says:

    To be fair it’s not entirely his fault, the biggest problem has been its ownership structure. With 5 competing airlines owning over 90% they were all self interested. ASIC should have moved on them way before the administration.

    Collectively they all moved to block each other getting any advantage, so instead of competing by putting in more money to improve there individual positions they blocked every attempt as times were Eventually tough for them. So poor old virgin couldn’t raise any capital, no shareholder purchase plans, only debt, which always ends the same way.

    • Reply to Richard

      says:

      Rex is primarily Foreign Owned

  • Salesh Prasad

    says:

    I thought that the CEO reported to the board

  • Paul

    says:

    Bryan as Chairman had plenty of opportunity to see how the business was being built and how sustainable the model was going to be. To now blame the former CEO is like that saying with a pot and kettle. The former CEO of Virgin did not get the top job at Qantas. Perhaps now we know why. Thank you Bryan for being so candid but you have also exposed yourself for approving the proposals and funding that got the airline into its current situation.

    • Peter McLoughlin

      says:

      Ms E Bryant AM has been on the Board of Management as Chair since 20 May 2015. Also she received directors fees / superannuation benefits of $375,000 for the year ending 30 June 2019. As well as providing strategic direction the role of the board should be to oversight the economic performance of the company of the company and hold the senior management to account.. Ms E Bryant AM must have been involved in the decision to take on Qantas Airways from a capacity and ticket price perspectives a couple of years ago that ended up costing the company a lot of money. Throwing your former CEO “under the bus” is poor form in these circumstances. As a shareholder in Virgin Australia I am resigned to the fact that I have blown my money. Must admit I would like to hear Massimo “John” Borghetti`s side of the story also. After all he was in the top 20 shareholders with some 9,367,924 shares at 30 June 2019. How the International Air Services Commission approved Virgin Australia – which at 30 June 2019 – was 90.89 % foreign owned to operate international airline services to / from Australia is beyond me.

  • Mark

    says:

    Strangest thing is it took the board so long to find him out.

  • Barry Moore

    says:

    “The role of the Board is to provide strategic guidance for Virgin Australia and effective
    oversight of management. ”

    Where is the accountability from the board?
    They are there to reign in the CEO, the CEO is accountable to the board so where was the oversight?

  • Nicholas

    says:

    What?

    I think many other people will be with me when I say I thought the CEO answered to the board?

    Ultimately if the board, read her, aren’t happy with the CEO and corporate results then they have a duty to act.

    And act at the time not whine afterwards…

  • Rocket

    says:

    “A withering broadside”
    Oh please, drama queen much???
    An observation perhaps but a ‘withering broadside’ would have been if she flat out called him incompetent .
    The bar has certainly lowered over the years for what constitutes an attack so the media must add hype.
    Secondly, he didn’t turn VA into anything even approaching an international’rival’ to QF. VA was a domestic carrier with a couple of international routes.
    It bought a regional airline but then the stunning incompetence of its former CEO saw to it that VA regional was mostly operated by Alliance.

  • Rod Pickin

    says:

    There would be few, if any contributors to this publication that would have been surprised by the revelations in last nights 4 Corners programme, I am sure we all know what the problem with the fall of VAH is/was but for now, let’s put that episode on hold until the new VOZ2 is up and running. I do believe that there is much room for prosecuting a case that would outlaw the incumbent/s from any further business representation but time will tell. I was particularly pleased to see that the Chair of VAH was able to acquit herself publicly over any wrong perceptions of her role and that of the board too. In the meantime, what have we got? – a political mess, we need a full time minister for Aviation matters not the current part time totally lost in the woods incumbent; – that should be an immediate change. We have a successful bidder, Bain Capital, with respect, by default and, firstly we need clarification on any intended actions or otherwise by the disaffected other applicants, – it would be great too if any retreating applicants would publicly state there reasons for their retreat, particularly important in this seemingly hurried episode. We know that Bain wants to progress VOZ2 on a smaller scale with a depleted fleet and staff numbers but they should and can now identify their intended areas of operation, ie Trunk, Regional/Rural and or international. We also know that “Tiger” may well live again, this time under the REX umbrella, seriously! Finally, we need to know the complete management structure that will oversee VOZ2 and for all concerned, we need to get the show on the road quicksmart so lets do it folks, chop chop.

  • Paul Robson

    says:

    She is just a typical example of corporate Australia….big salaries….but at the end of the day……just like the banks…..no accountability!
    She and Borghetti pocket their million and walk away…
    Pathetic!
    As for the footage of John Sharp gloating over his privatisation of Australia’s main Airports….great move that was for consumers and the Airlines!

  • AeroSexual

    says:

    Wasn’t it John Thomas not Elizabeth Bryan who said that the staff said ‘Can we please stop trying to be Qantas’??

    Regardless, the biggest thing to come out of this Four Corners program for me was everyone ducking for cover.
    John Borghetti wouldn’t appear and only issued a statement justifying his strategy.
    Elizabeth Bryån ultimately blaming Borghetti for a business plan her and her board approved for 4 years before he left and then suggesting it was her/the board who ‘changed the CEO’ when Borghetti called out that he flagged leaving in 2016 and was asked by the Chair to stay – who’s telling the truth?

    Brett Godfrey was right ‘I didn’t agree with the decision to go upmarket, but I wasn’t part of the boardroom by that stage’.
    Hindsight I guess for Brett (and everyone) but the most startling thing is no-one is actually willing to say ‘we got it so badly wrong’ – it’s all ducking and weaving. I wish Paul Scurrah good luck with 2.0, but at the end of the day it’s VC funded and they’ll either want a very big say in the management plan going forward or despite what they say today they’ll tidy it up and flip it relatively quickly. So it’s not over yet. I feel for the staff who cop most of the brunt whilst the senior executives and directors who lined their pockets pretty much walk away unscathed and onto their next cushy gig.

    • Adam Thorn

      says:

      Hi Aerosexual,

      Yes that was a typo, that line was John Thomas, which I corrected.

      Hindsight is a wonderful thing… and it does feel that Borghetti is being attacked for a plan quite a lot of people also got on board with!

      He also does have a point: Virgin Blue was running out of room to grow and something had to be done. Will be interesting to see how this plays out.

      Thanks for your comment,

      Adam

  • Fred

    says:

    She is most at fault. She was his boss since 2015. Fancy in her position appearing on TV and blaming others.

  • Martin

    says:

    Incredible, that an incompetent Chairwoman even gets a platform to voice such a confused opinion. It was your job to determine the strategic direction of the company. Of course Boards will make mistakes. But to blame in retrospective the CEO clearly points to the fact, that she has been promoted beyond her level of competence.

  • Peter McLoughlin

    says:

    As a shareholder in the former Virgin Australia Airlines the following is relevant:

    1. Massimo “John” Borgehetti had at 30 June 2019 9,367,924 shares or 0.11 ” of the total number of shares issued.

    2. Foreign interests owned 90.89 % of the shares / capital of the company. as at 30 June 2019.

    3. The decision by Virgin Australia to take on Qantas Airways from both a capacity and air fare pricing perspectives was not a good decision. Also I note the proposed revised Virgin Australia intends to only operate with one air craft type i.e. Boeing 737 which is a logical move but does not auger well for some of the smaller destinations, particularly in Queensland, from a frequency perspective. No doubt Regional Express Airlines will operate in to these ports in lieu.

    4. Ms E Bryant received as Chair of the Board of Management received remuneration of $375,000 for the year ending 30 June 2019. Ms E Bryant also had 227,000 shares in Virgin Australia as at 30 June 2019.

    5. It was the responsibility of the Board of Management to oversight the strategic management of the company and to ensure that effective management applied. Simple as that. Ms E Bryant AM was appointed to the Board as Chairman of Virgin Australia on 20 May 2015.

    6. The International Air Services Commission (IASC) should never have approved Virgin Australia – basically a foreign owned company i.e. 90.89 of its shares / capital – to operate international airline services from / to Australia that lost a significant amount of money. The sooner the IASC is incorporated in to a Civil Aviation Department responsible for all facets of civil aviation both domestically and internationally the better.

    7. The Federal Government made the correct decision not to bail out Virgin Australia. Government money should not be used to bail out private companies. The other option to take a controlling interest in Virgin Australia Mark 2 and re brand same was the other option.

    On the basis of this article and the comments made it appears, on a prima facie basis, Ms E Bryant “threw her former CEO under the bus” and I for one will be voting against her re election to the board of any companies that I have shares in such as IAG and WBC if she is still a director of same and is up for re election.

  • Dennis

    says:

    Had Virgin not bought into Tiger and matched Jetstars’ prices, maintaining a simple model,they probably would have succeeded.

  • Peter McLoughlin

    says:

    As a shareholder in the former Virgin Australia the following is relevant:

    1. Ms E Bryan AM has been on the Board and Managing Director since 20 May 2015.

    2. For the year ending 30 June 2019 her director fees / superannuation benefits totalled $375,000. Ms E Bryant also had 227,000 shares in Virgin Australia as at 30 June 2019.

    3. Ms E Bryant AM was the Chairperson of the Board of Directors when Virgin Australia took on Qantas Airways from both a capacity and ticket pricing perspectives which cost the company big bikkies. Poor management decisions which cost a lot of money!

    4. It is the responsibility of a Board of Directors to oversight the the operations of a company as well as set the strategic directions.

    5. The decision by Virgin Australia seeing it was at 30 June 2019 predominately foreign owned 90.89 % to operate international airline services should never have been approved by the International Air Services Commission (IASC).

    6. The sooner a Department of Civil Aviation is re created to take over all responsibility for civil aviation in Australia (including international services) the better.

    7. Throwing your former CEO “under the bus” was poor form.

  • Mister Wallace

    says:

    Just keep collecting those director fees and fly up the front but never ever do any oversight for the real shareholders.

  • Chris Weavers

    says:

    This is the same old story of Qantas using its size, market advantage of being the merged TAA and Qantas, and using that to kill off anyone that dares to compete – the Jetstar strategy was intended to kill Virgin Blue and finally as QF is doing to Rex, they move in to squeeze the competitors out – so many from Ansett and onwards

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