Ex-Virgin CEO goes walkabout
He used to reach for the sky as CEO of Virgin Australia, but now he’s more at home trekking the wilderness. Game-changer Brett Godfrey FCA has reinvented himself as passionate conservationist.
- Brett Godfrey, former CEO of Virgin Australia, persuaded billionaire tycoon Richard Branson to invest in setting up Virgin Blue in Australia.
- Since then he has co-founded the Tasmanian Walking Company (TWC) and the Australian Walking Company (AWC).
- He says his fortune, life and even luck was founded on hard work but also by being a chartered accountant.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever given a serve to a billionaire? But I did,” says Brett Godfrey, co-founder of Virgin Australia.
It was 2000, and Godfrey was negotiating to establish Virgin Blue as a new Australian airline. The prime minister, deputy prime minister and heads of industry were primed to meet Sir Richard Branson for lunch on a boat in Sydney Harbour when Godfrey received a gut-wrenching call. The deal was off.
It wasn’t the first or last time that Godfrey and former Virgin deputy CEO Rob Sherrard would have a run-in with Branson’s coterie of investment advisers. At that time, Singapore Airlines, which owned half of existing domestic carrier Ansett, was on the cusp of buying a 50% stake in Virgin Atlantic. This made the Virgin Blue deal awkward for Branson.
When Godfrey put down the phone, he kicked himself. “I thought, you dickhead, you listened and Richard’s points of view were all valid but you owed it to yourself to tell him.” All night he tried to track down Branson in South Africa; in the early hours, he located the Virgin chief.
“I just rambled for about two minutes. I said he’d burn all his bridges in Australia and never be able to set foot in this country again with his reputation intact.” The seconds ticked past and Godfrey waited for his boss to fire him. “But Richard was silent, before saying, ‘You’re right. Screw it, let’s do it’.” That pithy one-liner became famous as the title of Branson’s second business book – and Godfrey kept his job.
Only on one other occasion, claims Godfrey, has he played that card of taking “a real solid high ground ... If you want someone to listen to you, you sometimes have to do a lot of listening first”. And Branson appreciates that Godfrey is often the contrarian. “He does like that about me.”
When Virgin Blue launched with Godfrey at the helm as CEO, there was no certainty that the upstart airline would usurp Ansett or disrupt Qantas. Yet by the end of his 10-year tenure, he’d taken Virgin Blue from two to 86 aircraft, transformed the airline from a low-cost to a new world carrier, and launched a long-haul service to the United States. To top it off, in May 2010, three months before he announced his retirement, the airline reported a bigger profit than rival Qantas. The 46-year-old then walked out the door. Any regrets? “No. It was time to turn over a new leaf.”
Visionary with a BlackBerry
Famously, Godfrey and co-founder Sherrard hatched the idea of Virgin Blue on the back of eight beer coasters in a London pub during the 1997 Ashes tour. Once it became a live project, things quickly became less casual. In the early days at Virgin, when Branson was heavily involved, Godfrey’s day started at 7am and finished at 10pm. Most evenings were spent in the office, so “I say this almost jokingly – in the 10 years at Virgin, I was home for dinner on a week night 10 times in 10 years,” says Godfrey.
While he no longer has an insane schedule, Godfrey hasn’t slowed down, says Sherrard. “But he certainly has tried to balance his life well between his family and health.”
Sherrard is now Godfrey’s long-time business partner in the well-established Tasmanian Walking Company (TWC) that runs high-end walks on the green isle.
I never cared about ratios. I cared about how the numbers of today could tell me the market in the future
“Brett goes for the game-changer every time,” says public relations expert Kirsty Aitken, a friend and business associate who has known and worked for Godfrey for more than 15 years. “Every time I speak to him, he has a new venture, a new interest, coupled with this new level of excitement and enthusiasm. I don’t know how he sustains that energy and lifestyle. Most people couldn’t.”
Any quirks? His long obsession with BlackBerry phones is a “running joke”, she continues. “Earlier this year, he went and bought half a dozen.” He’s also mad about kite surfing and recently “drowned two BlackBerries in one day” on the water.
Touching the earth
More than 25 years working in the aviation industry, first as a financial controller at Sherrard/National Jet in Melbourne, and then in the UK and Belgium for various incarnations of Virgin airlines, wouldn’t automatically seem to lead to Godfrey’s new passion for conservation. Yet these days, his focus is not reaching for the sky, it’s touching the earth. And while Godfrey has always been a keen bushwalker, trekking in Nepal and across Australia, there’s no question that his new high-end walking ventures are also commercially driven. And a sceptic might wonder if there isn’t an element of payback to the environment after Virgin Australia pumped a decade’s worth of fossil fuel into the atmosphere.
What may come as a surprise is that Godfrey partnered with former competitor Geoff Dixon, ex-CEO of Qantas. In 2015 they launched the Australian Walking Company (AWC). While operated and managed by Godfrey’s earlier acquisition, the Tasmanian Walking Company, AWC is focused solely on mainland luxury walks. Godfrey insists they were never enemies during their airline days and the pair discovered their mutual passion for hiking when serving on the Tourism Australia board.
AWC runs not as a trekking company, but as owner of low-impact infrastructure and lodges in national parks constructed to high environmental standards. Its first purchase was the 12 Apostles Lodge Walk. Godfrey and Dixon are in discussion with the Anangu people in central Australia to see if they can operate a walk across sacred land between Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas).
In August 2016, the pair completed a four-night, 110-kilometre walk across the desert with friends, family and a support team of vehicles, doctors and food, to prove they are serious about the new venture.
The next lemonade stand
Godfrey has always “loved the idea of selling things”. Aged six, he set up a lemonade stand outside a hospital in Vancouver, where the family lived. “I wanted to get into business even then,” he says. He seems to have inherited an entrepreneurial mindset from his father, Bob Godfrey, who was an aviation executive. Combine that with a commercial appreciation of business, a disarming charisma, the sort of persistent tenacity terriers are known for, and – last, but not least – holding the chartered accountant designation, and you have a winning formula.
“I never cared about ratios,” he says. “I cared about how the numbers of today could tell me the market in the future.”
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Can this ability be learned, or is it a way of thinking? Godfrey struggles for an answer. Ultimately, he feels it can be learned but it takes a particular sort of motivation. “My fortune and life, my goodwill, even my luck was founded on hard work but also by being a chartered accountant. I say this very sincerely.” Throughout his career, he’s always hired CAs “because I know what they’ve gone through”. Yet he wouldn’t let them stay in accounting: one went into marketing, another took charge of engineering.
While Godfrey was awarded an Outstanding CA Speaker Award in 2003, he says that when he qualified, he realised he’d never be good enough to be a partner in a firm. Why? “I felt that my learning and background set me up for the next lemonade stand.”
Paying the price
Godfrey isn’t about to shed any tears over the hours he put in to make Virgin Australia a success. For the first five years, in an industry known as being in constant shock, the airline was always in start-up mode. “There is rarely a ‘normal’ in aviation,” he says. “Terrorism, fuel crises, anything can happen.”
Inevitably, it’s been hard on his wife Zahra and two boys Ryan and Nic, now in their 20s. “He needed a change,” says Aitken lightly. “Either change his life or get divorced, perhaps.”
“Quite simply, I needed to be home more for my wife and my family,” says Godfrey. During those Virgin years, Canadian-born lawyer Zahra “referred to herself as a single parent – and she was for a long time.” It took months for Godfrey to readjust and redefine his identity. Three years ago he had a type of “delayed reaction”, perhaps the result of “running on adrenaline for far too long”. He now has an unidentified auto-immune condition that he takes very seriously. Family holidays are sacrosanct and he works around the things that he loves.
“He’s a very dedicated family man,” says Chantal Lewis, Senior Development Director at Room 2 Road, an international education foundation on which both Brett and Zahra were founding members of the advisory board. “When I’ve sat with them in their Brisbane home, there’s always been a sense of how very proud they are of their sons.”
Once notorious for being constantly on the phone and sneaking off to the bathroom, claiming a prostate issue in order to take a call, he remains habitually late. “I’m still a bit” – he corrects himself – “quite overly focused… to the angst of my wife. In particular, I’ve always been driven, not stopping until I’m done.”
Brett always plays a trick on him and Richard falls for it every time
Aside from a fierce loyalty, Sherrard credits Godfrey with still being “fairly approachable”, unlike others in the business world with “large egos”. Godfrey insists he is pretty normal. But he does have a trickster side to him. “It’s in his nature,” says Aitken.
In 2001, Godfrey and Branson purchased the idyllic heart-shaped Makepeace Island in the Noosa River on the Sunshine Coast together. The two have remained close friends, and when the billionaire comes to Australia, they will often holiday there. “Brett always plays a trick on him and Richard falls for it every time,” says Aitken, laughing. “They’ve had such a long relationship and Brett will say: ‘What can I come up with that’s better than the last one?’”
On Branson’s last visit, Godfrey hired Natalie, a professional singer, to dress in the Makepeace uniform and act as one of the wait staff during an intimate dinner with friends and family. During the entree, Godfrey claimed that all his staff had hidden talents, and Natalie was known to carry a tune. “She pretended to be all shy, playing up to it very well,” says Aitken. By the main course, Richard, too, was very persuasive, encouraging her to sing.
“Then all of a sudden, Natalie belted out this incredible tune. Richard was floored. She continued the service and he kept telling her she should be a professional singer.” At the end of the meal, a guitar was set up and Natalie came out in a different costume. “Richard did a double-take. He’d been totally set up by Brett.”
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