Farewell James Strong: The Lismore farmboy who led Qantas and Woolworths

Farewell James Strong: The Lismore farmboy who led Qantas and Woolworths

James Strong, one of Australia’s most influential and iconic business leaders, died in Melbourne yesterday, aged 68, after complications following surgery.

From 1993 to 2001 Strong was the CEO of Qantas. Until November 2012, he was the chairman of Woolworths, as well as Kathmandu Holdings and the motorsport authority, V8 Supercars.

Strong was renowned as a down-to-earth leader. In August 2010, he wrote in Boss magazine that “it is all too easy” to underestimate the ability of people to gauge the sincerity, credibility and trustworthiness of their leaders.

When our sister publication, The Power Index, ranked the most powerful business leaders in Australia in 2012, Strong featured prominently. He personally called reporter Angela Priestley to arrange a chat for the piece. Here is a shortened version of that article, which can be found in full here.

James Strong knows how to keep entertained. He bikes, climbs, wears bowties, and chairs the boards of three very different entities: Woolworths, Kathmandu and the federal government’s peak arts funding body, the Australia Council.

Some might call the adventurous businessman Australia’s very own Richard Branson – except that he’s got some humility, not just entrepreneurial zest.

Add to the CV his latest appointment – chairing the ICC World Cricket Cup 2015 – alongside his role as a non-executive director on the board of Qantas, and Strong’s almost got the full spectrum of life covered.

“There are so many interesting and stimulating things all around,” he tells The Power Index enthusiastically. “You meet so many different people, in business, the arts and in sport.”

Strong’s the real deal people person. He doesn’t rely on a PA to schedule in time for our chat, but rather calls up to talk himself. He even tells us to “send his regards” to the competition when we mention we’re interviewing Wesfarmers chief, Richard Goyder.

No wonder he’s one of the country’s most in-demand chairmen, up there with the likes of his good friend and fellow arts fanatic, David Gonski. And no wonder, having breathed some life into the once struggling outdoor clothing specialist Kathmandu alongside his role at the 191,000-employee strong Woolworths, he’s got the ear of some of the business community’s key players.

Strong’s little black book of connections must be a motley mix of contacts. He likes to build relationships with people well away from the boardroom.

He rides motorbikes with logistics tycoon Chris Corrigan, recently making it from Sydney to Phillip Island – and making a pit-stop along the way to sign some Australia Council documents on the side of the road. He flies planes (he owns a twin engine Beechcraft Baron that his wife pilots) and drops into Broome for a surf during the dry season with Dymocks chairman John Forsyth.

But his more distinguishable pastime is climbing. He met Rip Curl creator Brian Singer on a mountain on Antarctica back in 1991, after striking up a friendship with Sir Edmund Hillary’s son Peter at a fund-raising event.

“He [Peter] came and did a talk on his first climb of Everest, and I said, ‘Is there anything a village idiot can do?’ He rang me two weeks later and said, ‘How would you like to climb the highest mountain in Antarctica?'”

Sir Edmund himself was also a great mate and “one of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet”, who emulated Strong’s most admired qualities: modesty and humility.

Strong grew up on a farm in Lismore where his days were “dominated by the cows” – he milked them by hand in the morning before heading off to school. And long before he ever considered himself interested in business, he liked having things to do.

“Laughingly, my mother once said, ‘You just had a paper run, you were a telegram boy, you used to do gardening for fees, you used to look after the tennis courts for fees. No, you weren’t interested in business activity at all!’,” he chuckles. “Your parents sometimes say things to you that you’re not even aware of yourself.”

Of 6000 applicants, a 16-year-old Strong was selected to undertake officer training at the military academy, Duntroon. He dropped out prior to completing his fourth year, having difficulties with the “command and structure of the military” that were suitable for battle conditions, but not for him.

The short stint Strong later undertook working in an abattoir where his father was a superintendent proved more influential to Strong’s business career: “I learned more from him than anyone in my life,” he says. “How you treat people and how you deal with them and how you behave is what most determines what they think about you and the job you’re doing.”

And that applies to how he works with boards. “He is intuitive about the balance of discussion, information and decision-making,” Kathy Keele, who Strong backed as CEO of the Australia Council, says. “This allows boards to get to know each other, to develop a collegiate environment and do more substantial thinking in the lead up to their decision making.”

Strong’s term chairing the Australia Council comes to an end later this month [June 2012]. It’s been a “rewarding and productive” working relationship, according to Keele. And despite all that multi-tasking, she says he’s always been available.

Leaving the government body will offer a little more spare time for life outside work. In true Strong style, he’s struck up a friendship with one of the globe’s most renowned counter tenors, Andreas Scholl, and will travel to Salisbury for the Opera Festival to stay with, and watch, Scholl sing in Julius Caesar later this year.

As Keele puts it: “One never knows where you’re going to find him.”

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