It was in early June on a Zoom call between Bain Capital executives and a group of union leaders representing Virgin Australia’s workers when the gaping cultural chasm between the two groups became glaringly apparent.
Bain’s high profile, handpicked adviser Jane Hrdlicka was outlining the private equity firm’s vision to relaunch the collapsed airline and what its plan would mean for its 9000 strong workforce. But the former A2 Milk CEO and Jetstar boss’ use of meaningless management jargon, including terms like “flexibility” and “synergies”, was completely lost on the audience. It prompted one straight-talking union leader to request that the remainder of the meeting “take place in English”.
Bain is now the likely owner of Virgin after Deloitte announced on Friday it would enter into a binding sale agreement with the collapsed carrier. But it hasn’t been a smooth ascent for the Boston-headquartered private equity house, which was founded by former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The tensions between Bain and the unions representing workers that were evident on that Zoom call have been clear throughout the Virgin sale process. And they are unlikely to go away as the Virgin saga enters its next phase – one that is likely to involve thousands of job cuts.
While most of the public focus on Bain and its pursuit of Virgin in recent weeks has centred on local managing director and former Olympic diver Mike Murphy, the role of Hrdlicka in the deal and in Virgin’s future is considered by some observers to be just as important.
The woman described by some as “exceptionally charming” and by others as “robotic” has been a focal point for nervous unions who remember her stint at Qantas when it established budget airline Jetstar. It was an era when Qantas’ industrial relations were in turmoil following an unprecedented worker lockout and grounding of planes.
And for the future of Virgin, this could be significant. Bain has almost certainly secured the keys to Australia’s number two airline, but unions and bondholders are still holding out hope for one late twist. A creditor vote could still pitch parts of Virgin into liquidation, while bondholder creditors are mulling legal action that could interrupt Bain’s plans.
Hrdlicka declined to be interviewed for this article.
Shortly after the infamous Zoom call, Hrdlicka was sidelined from Bain’s bidding team as it became painfully apparent the potential kingmakers in the union movement had serious concerns about her.
This masthead revealed last week that she was no longer attending key meetings with unions to discuss Virgin’s future.
For Hrdlicka, a woman that prides herself on her public reputation, that was surely a bruising experience.
The daughter of a Czech fleeing the chill of the cold war, Hrdlicka grew up as an all American girl. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in mathematics and economics and then worked at an advisory practice that later became Ernst & Young.
After gaining an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the then 26-year-old soon landed a job in Boston at famed management consultancy firm Bain & Co in 1987.
Her job at Bain took her around the world, but it was in Australia where she put down roots in 1994. She worked with a young Alan Joyce when he was an executive at the Rod Eddington-led Ansett. Her connection with Joyce continued at Qantas where she would eventually play a key role developing budget airline Jetstar into a powerhouse.
Under her leadership, Jetstar became a strategically and financially important asset for Qantas. In her last year in charge of the business it made a $327 million profit, more than Qantas’ international arm and second only to Qantas’ money-spinning loyalty division.
But it was before taking the top job at Jetstar that her relationships with workers and unions seriously deteriorated.
Hrdlicka was head of strategy when Qantas boss Alan Joyce took the unprecedented step of locking out its workforce in 2011 amid a stoush with the unions over pay.
Tensions had boiled over after Qantas announced a new strategy, championed by Joyce and Hrdlicka to sack 1000 staff and to expand further into Asia. At the time, ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence described it as the “darkest day” in the aviation industry.
Even Hrdlicka herself described the mood at Qantas when things hit rock bottom as “very sobering”.
“The thing which has worked well for Qantas and for Jetstar has been being very clear about the role we play in various markets and what we need to be successful in the future,” she said at the time.
To put it bluntly, that long, toxic relationship between Hrdlicka and the unions remains today.
Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association federal secretary Steve Purvinas made it clear exactly what concerned his workers when he said last week that the reason his union was backing an offer by rival bidder Cyrus Capital Partners was because Bain had too many “Qantas methods”.
“I don’t want to see Qantas ways brought into the Virgin brand. I do not want that near my members,” he said.
The reference to Qantas was a direct warning about Hrdlicka.
The 2011 lockout and subsequent industrial squabbles were a painful and wrenching experience for the airline and its workforce. But it didn’t stop Hrdlicka’s career trajectory.
After nearly six years at Jetstar, despite being viewed as a potential successor to Joyce in one of the biggest jobs in corporate Australia, Hrdlicka made her next move. In 2018 she was appointed CEO of ASX listed dairy producer A2 Milk. At the time, she was one only of 15 women to run an ASX top 300 company and was lauded for her style and approach.
But a little over a year later she abruptly left the $10 billion company. A2 Milk’s share price had suffered under her stewardship, its margins withered, and the amount spent on consultants had rocketed to about $NZ20 million.
A spokesman for the branded milk group declined to comment on her stint given the settlement between Hrdlicka and the company – a response that in and of itself points to a difficult departure. Hrdlicka herself has always maintained she left for “family” reasons.
The Bain consultancy is her first role since then. But as this masthead’s CBD column revealed, she remains on gardening leave from A2 Milk and is not currently taking a pay cheque.
Hrdlicka’s role as the President of Tennis Australia 2017 has also seen her at the centre of one of the country’s most important networking and sporting events, the Australian Open. She’s also famous in some quarters for having an occasional hit of tennis with her Hawthorn neighbour Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
During the annual event she is known to wine and dine heavy hitters of politics and business including Vogue magazine editor and fashion doyenne Anna Wintour, property mogul John Gandel, former Ansett boss and Bain client Rod Eddington, former Premier Ted Baillieu and ALP national secretary Paul Erickson.
“You have to question where her priorities were. I think Tennis Australia would say she’s done a marvellous job” quipped one well-placed observer who declined to be named because of ongoing business relationships.
Bain has said it will retain Scurrah in the top job at Virgin. But there are still strong expectations Hrdlicka will still be heavily involved in the airline under the private equity firm’s stewardship.
Some figures close to the process say Hrdlicka’s sidelining in the latter stages of Bain’s Virgin tilt following the Zoom call was strategic: it was part of a charm offensive to win over unions, which were gravitating towards rival bidder Cyrus Capital. Another source close to Bain said the falling out was confected for theatre and that Hrdlicka took a back seat because unions wanted to talk directly with Bain, not its advisers.
She is definitely a positive for Bain and its team … the unions have to be realistic here, they can’t save every job.
Senior aviation source
That has led to expectations she could be appointed a director or board chair or even as chief executive if Scurrah is only given a year in that role. It’s possible Hrdlicka is not involved in Virgin 2.0. in which case her skillset could still be in demand in sections of corporate Australia.
“I found Jayne to have a strong analytical mind, she can be quite tough but not unpleasantly or unkindly so,” says one senior aviation industry source and member of the director class.
“She is definitely a positive for Bain and its team,” the source says, adding: “The unions have to be realistic here, they can’t save every job.”
Observers are split on whether Hrdlicka’s role in the Virgin deal ultimately helped or hurt Bain. But for many aviation workers she will always be a key part of Alan Joyce’s team at Qantas that took the unprecedented step of locking out its workforce.
Sarah Danckert is a business reporter.
Business reporter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.