Virgin Australia’s Mark Hassell tells Mel Flaherty about his rare, and challenging job.
“My plan was to not work in aviation,” says Mark Hassell of his career aspirations just under two years ago after a 25 year stint at British Airways, including a seven year secondment to Qantas. He is now Chief Customer Officer of Virgin Australia, the mainly domestic Antipodean carrier.
The change of heart was not a case of taking an easy option, it was completely down to the entrepreneurial spirit of his latest employer, Hassell says. “I’d had great jobs and lots of great experiences, as well as difficult times where there were major industry-wide challenges. I had reached a point where I wanted to do something quite different and fresh, not in an industry sector that was in the doldrums, which aviation had been for some time,” he explains of his pre-Virgin days. “I was thinking something hospitality based, like hotels, or even retail. My former boss at Qantas [now Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti] then called me and offered me a job and I said while I was flattered, I was looking to do something else. He said ‘But this is very different’, so I agreed to go and meet him.
“Before I met John for that chat, I went and experienced the company first hand – the crew on the plane and on the ground were amazing.”
Hassell says he was bowled over by the energy of the entire organisation and its ability to not only identify the need for change, but to embrace it and implement it swiftly and effectively.
The company started life 13 years ago, as Virgin Blue, a budget brand with two planes, 1 route and 200 employees. Within nine months, it had welcomed its millionth customer. The 2001 financial collapse of Ansett Australia, the former giant of Australian air travel, allowed Virgin Blue to significantly up its game. Recognising an opportunity to expand outside the budget market and challenge Qantas in the corporate travel sector, the company relaunched three years ago as a premium operator, Virgin Australia. Hassell joined part way through the ‘Game Change Programme’ (initially as General Manager, Brand and Customer before swiftly becoming Group Executive, Brand and Customer Experience and moving to his current job in September 2012).
The programme repositioned the airline and Hassell says the experience has been totally different to anything else he has done in his career. “Throughout my career I have worked with some remarkable people but it is a difficult industry and always has been. I am now in an environment where there is a phenomenal level of engagement, where people genuinely want to go the extra mile – legacy businesses just don’t have that,” he says, highlighting the key differences between his new workplace and the large, corporate approach of a company steeped in tradition, as he experienced at BA.
In fact, Hassell’s actual job also underlines the chalk and cheese of his previous and current employers. His last position at BA was Head of Customer Experience, prior to which he was General Manager of In-Flight Service Worldwide after his time at Qantas as General Manager, Cabin Crew. His latest title, Chief Customer Officer, is a rare one – he is not aware of a similar role within the aviation industry and discovered only recently that he is among a select band of around 400 people globally with that job description. At Virgin Australia, it is an extremely far-reaching executive-level role, applying a “customer lens” on all aspects of the company, from financial, to operational, marketing and product development and beyond.
“It was created to absolutely demonstrate internally and externally that customer service is at the heart of what we do,” he explains. “A lot of legacy businesses tend to be fragmented in traditional ways but this allows some good joined-up thinking and good traction and momentum.
“Whether you are the CEO or a flight attendant, you have all got a customer. Companies can be overtly finance driven, focussed on numbers, or primarily focussed on operations, but we have created a pretty balanced mix that doesn’t preclude effective and swift decision-making; it enhances it.” Hassell says the result is a “powerful, collegiate, yet high output, business model” without internal politics or “turf wars.”
Under this structure, Virgin Australia exceeded by 12 months its target of getting business purpose travel to 20% of the total revenue mix within three years and, with 3.7 million members, its Velocity frequent flyers programme is on track to reach five million members within five years. Since reaching its aims, the firm has not revealed exactly how significant business travel is, but the fact that the lounge for premium guests at Sydney has doubled, soon to be followed by a similar scale of expansion to the facilities at Melbourne and Brisbane, plus totally new lounges to be created at Cairns, Darwin and Perth, is telling. Game on Virgin Australia recently reported annual losses of Au$98.1m, as it had previously warned, compared to Au$22.8m profit the previous year. It has not divulged a target timescale for moving back into the black, but a lot of the major expenditure incurred by the repositioning of the brand has now been completed and the company has embarked on the next, five-year, stage of its strategy, the ‘Game On Programme’.
Hassell is clearly enthused by the challenge and does not seem at all fazed by the apparent enormity of his role. Maybe it’s the soft Australian twang, unavoidable after first seven years and now another 20 months of living in Sydney, that makes him sound so laid back. He loves the opportunities that residing in a warmer climate bring, particularly the year-round option of a morning run to clear his head, but he has never had any feelings of dissatisfaction with living in the UK or Australia – the motivation to leave either has been purely down to too good- to-miss job opportunities. He feels quite at home in both countries, and will feel even more so in Sydney when he finds the time to buy his own apartment in the city.
Leading great teams of people is what has given him the most job satisfaction over the years, from small groups of ten staff up to the 14,500 cabin crew he was responsible for at one time at BA. During his time in the industry, Hassell has been part of a major redefinition of consumer travel, brought about by the advent of the low cost operators. Technology has also transformed the business, not just operationally but also by empowering the customer.
Air travel was something he only used to dream about as a boy growing up in Cheshire. In fact, he recalls many trips to Manchester Airport just to go and look at planes. After five years in branch banking from the age of 16, Hassell decided that career path wasn’t for him and instead furthered his studies at Manchester Polytechnic. While there, he applied for a part-time cabin crew position with BA – he didn’t get an interview the first time, but eventually made it and not only got his foot in the door, but strode in and didn’t look back for quite a while. He may have felt his time with BA was up but the desire to dip his toe into something else has totally vanished for now, it seems: “I thought my time in aviation had come to an end but, lo and behold, I was wrong and my passion for it has been completely reignited.”