SAMANTHA HUTCHINSON Reporter

Samantha writes on exports, Islamic finance and the business of doing business across borders. Before moving into journalism she worked in executive recruitment and public policy.

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How Brett Godfrey found his balance

Published 08 November 2012 04:39, Updated 09 November 2012 06:30

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Two years from leaving the airline he created, Brett Godfrey says he finally feels like he’s the boss.

It can be difficult to get former the Virgin Australia chief executive on the phone. “I have two phones, one personal and one work related one, which doesn’t come out with me,” he says. “Its great, day to day I don’t have contact with people unless it’s on my time.”

Godfrey speaks as he is on the way from his home in Brisbane to Sydney for a Tourism Australia board meeting, where he sits alongside his former “arch nemesis” and immediate past Qantas chief executive, Geoff Dixon.

Since stepping down as head of the airline he founded and lead for 10 years, he is relaxed, and with good reason. He spent the morning bike riding for two hours before retiring to a café to take in the briefing pack for the board meeting.

It’s a vast change from the world he is used to and it’s not because he isn’t busy.

A heavy load of board work, commercial and charitable projects means he is as committed today as he was during his time at Virgin’s helm.

He is still a board member of Canadian airline Westjet and Auckland Airport, in addition to Tourism Australia. He also has a number of commercial tourism interests, including luxury resorts Makepeace Island in Noosa and Quambi Estate in Tasmania which he owns in partnership with Virgin founder Richard Branson and Australian businessman Rob Sherrard respectively.

But for the first time in his life, Godfrey is adamant that he has achieved “balance.”

“I work really hard, as hard as I used to, but I have this thing, it’s family, fitness and friends and work has to be slotted in,” he says. “And because I can organise my time to suit me, I’m a better thinker, strategist and leader.”

The realisation was 20 years in the making.

Godfrey’s bold play in 2000 to upset Qantas and Ansett’s stranglehold on Australian domestic airspace was one of the boldest challenges ever mounted in Australian commercial history.

Dixon, the Qantas chief executive at the time, was public in his comments that he believed (and no doubt firmly hoped) the company would go broke within its first year.

But it flourished.

Virgin had a turnover of more than $1.7 billion within five years. By the end of his tenure in 2010, the brand had captured a 20 per cent share of the domestic market.

Life at the top moved at a frantic pace.

“I’d start the day at 7.30am, checking overnight emails at home,” he says. “I was home around 7.30-8pm and that was when London was waking up ... you never switched off until you went to bed.”

Company headquarters were in Brisbane, (“a great place to live”) but most of the company’s clients were in Sydney and Melbourne. His travel schedule was exhausting.

“I was home for dinner on a weeknight 10 times in 10 years,” he says, adding, “You can understand why I’d jokingly refer to [the company] as ‘the third child’. I had this idea that I was indispensable and it’s a stupid belief.”

Godfrey’s says the extent to which he let the role encroach on his private life and the effects it had on his productivity are a warning to others.

His commitment to being by the phone and in contact was a drain on his efficiency. “I was the type of person who was always up checking their phone between courses at dinner,” he says. “I could never get an hour interrupted, let alone two on my own.”

The myth of being indispensable is an easy trap to fall into but as Godfrey is at pains to point out, it’s just not sustainable.

Just before Godfrey handed over the reins in May 2010, he admits he did not want to leave.

“It was between 1991 and 1993 when the idea started getting bandied about and then it took six years to get it funded,” he says. “It took up such a huge part of my life.

“I expected to wake up on that Monday morning and be that guy with the long range binoculars staring at the building, or being escorted off the premises by security guards.”

He instead woke up feeling calm and “really contented”. He has not looked back.

At the time, he publicly stated that he intended to become a house husband. Taking a more active approach to controlling his time has made him partially successful in his quest.

Godfrey now works from home with the help of a personal assistant. He is at home every day to drop his kids off to school and cycles four to five times a week.

He doesn’t touch the work phone outside of office hours.

“I could never get an hour uninterrupted and now I’m relaxed, refreshed, I can function better,” he says.

“I now laugh at dinner with friends who are still on that [corporate] treadmill that I used to be on … and they’re getting up to answer their phones between courses, just like an on-call transplant surgeon but they’re running a business, not saving lives,” he says.

Godfrey now mentors a number of small start-ups as a side project. His first lesson?

No one is ever indispensable.

“There is this idiocy of some start-ups that you have to be on call 24 hours day,” he says. “You don’t.”

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