Top dogs: the 2017 Million Dollar Club


Being a senior executive at a publicly listed company is no walk in the park. It requires complete dedication to the job, with little downtime and an endless succession of meetings and presentations along with many difficult — and often unpopular — decisions. The financial markets demand relentless discipline, and those who don’t meet expectations can quickly find themselves in the doghouse. But for those who are prepared to devote themselves to the task, the rewards can be rich — particularly when they have skin in the game. Bruce Piper looks at the industry’s top earners this year and where they fit in the food chain.

There have been some significant year-on-year shifts in this year’s travelBulletin Million Dollar Club — the list of travel industry executives who made more than a million dollars last year. The biggest changes were in the ranks at Helloworld, where Andrew and Cinzia Burnes reaped the rewards of their first full year of ownership and the huge turnaround within the business to catapult them into the top echelon of industry earners. On the airline side, Qantas executives benefited from the company’s strong share price performance, while there have been several key personnel departures among Virgin Australia’s senior staff. And executives among Australia’s listed hoteliers also did well, as the sector continues to boom due to strong inbound and domestic demand.

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At Helloworld, having “skin in the game” has been a hallmark of the reign of Andrew and Cinzia Burnes. Since they merged AOT with Helloworld about 18 months ago they have encouraged members and franchisees to take equity in the listed entity, with last year’s Owner Managers Conference featuring a share giveaway and an offer by the parent company to take a stake in member businesses. The new approach has seen Helloworld take a 50% shareholding in MTA Travel, as well as sealing equity deals with Hunter Travel Group and Helloworld Mackay. The Burnes’ themselves have significant shareholdings in Helloworld, and with the company’s performance improving and dividends being paid, they this year reaped a combined $7 million from the company. Interestingly their base remuneration from Helloworld comprised less than $500,000 each, with the pair receiving over $6 million in franked dividends.

Helloworld’s list of key management personnel — those whose salary packages are disclosed — has also undergone significant change since last year. Names such as Peter Egglestone, Elizabeth Gaines and Jenny Macdonald no longer appear, while Russell Carstensen, the company’s group general manager corporate, took home a total of $587,413 including dividends — a 26% haircut from last year’s $788,526. The change was largely the fulfilment of a note in the Helloworld 2016 annual report where directors stated that “Russell Carstensen’s base salary has been recalibrated” to bring it into line with other executives. Other top Helloworld earners included the company’s new chief financial officer Michael Burnett, who took home $643,000 for the year.

Corporate Travel Management was another standout performer, where founder and CEO Jamie Pherous was paid a $448,000 base salary — slightly less than the $452,000 paid to Andrew and Cinzia Burnes. However he received a $231,000 bonus, taking his total remuneration to $679,000. While that didn’t put him into the magic million dollar club, once CTM’s 30c dividend on his 21 million-plus shares was paid that boosted Pherous’ pay packet into the stratosphere, putting him in second place in the ranking with a total income of over $7 million — a 50% increase on the previous year. Other Corporate Travel Management executives also did well, with Laura Ruffles receiving a total of $1.2 million including a base salary of $538,000, and a $443,000 bonus. In contrast to her boss, Ruffles holds a relatively small shareholding in CTM so only reaped about $30,000 in dividends. Corporate Travel Management CEO North America, Chris Thelen, was also in the million dollar club, taking home $1.18 million for the year.

John Guscic, CEO of Webjet, has had his package increasingly slanted towards remuneration from the company’s rising share price and dividends. Last year Webjet lent him money to purchase a larger shareholding and that certainly boosted his earnings in 2017. Guscic has a relatively large base salary, at $815,000, and received bonuses and other payments of $728,000, boosting his income to just over $1.6 million. On top of that he received $386,000 in Webjet dividends, with the combination almost making him a $2 million man this year. Gucsic was paid significantly more than other Webjet executives, with group chief commercial officer Shelley Beasley the next in line, taking home just under $700,000.

As always, Flight Centre dominated this year’s rankings, with the company’s co-founder and managing director Graham Turner once again unquestionably the top dog in the 2017 Million Dollar Club. His comparatively modest $380,000 base salary was bolstered by a bonus and other benefits to $675,000 in total — exactly the same as last year. However that was just chump change compared to his income from Flight Centre dividends. Despite a slow first half and the announcement of a wide-ranging strategic project to remove loss-making units from the business, Flight Centre still made a very healthy profit and declared dividends worth $1.37 per share — taking Turner’s total income from the company to more than $21.5 million. There won’t be too many feeling sorry for him, but it should be noted that was down about 10% or $2 million on the previous year due to a small reduction in the Flight Centre dividend in 2017/18.

While not in the league of Skroo in terms of their income from Flight Centre dividends, a number of other senior FLT executives also made it into the million dollar club this year. They included chief operating officer Melanie Waters-Ryan, whose $400,000 base salary was boosted to $1.2 million through a bonus and share-based payments. On top of that Waters-Ryan has 85,725 Flight Centre shares which earned another $117,000, taking her total remuneration from the company to $1.35 million this year, up 2% on the 2015/16 figure. Other Flight Centre Million Dollar Club members this year included Dean Smith, executive general manager for The Americas, with a total income of $1.37 million, and Flight Centre executive general manager for Europe & South Africa, Chris Galanty with $1.31 million.


Qantas CEO Alan Joyce this year saw his pay packet really take off, with the company’s annual report detailing total remuneration of more than $25 million. Putting that into perspective, that means he effectively earned about $500,000 per week — or assuming a five day work week (which of course is not the case in his 24/7 role) about $100,000 per day. While that prompted some predictable squeals of outrage, it should be noted that more than $20 million of that was due to the accounting treatment of long-term equity incentives which have hugely increased in value due to the strong performance of Qantas shares. In terms of cash income, Joyce’s base salary was $2.1 million and he also received a $1.78 million bonus.

Other top Qantas earners included international CEO Gareth Evans whose total package including incentives was worth $8.2 million; Jetstar CEO Jayne Hrdlicka with $8.1 million; head of loyalty Lesley Grant with $5.08 million; domestic CEO Andrew David with $3.9 million; and chief financial officer Tino La Spina who took home $3.7 million.

The equity-boosted high salaries at Qantas were in contrast with those at Virgin Australia, where CEO John Borghetti received a still healthy $6.5 million including a $1.93 million base salary plus short and long-term cash payments worth $4 million. Other big earners at Virgin Australia included group executive regional airlines & cargo Merren McArthur with $1.88 million; head of Tigerair Australia and now acting VA group executive, Rob Sharp, with $1.42 million and Velocity chief Karl Schuster also with $1.42 million. The Virgin Australia annual report also revealed that the now departed John Thomas received over $2 million for his nine month tenure as VA group executive – including a whopping $990,000 termination payment.

Air New Zealand once again did not disclose the actual pay packets of its senior executives, in line with listing rules on the NZ stock exchange which only require the chief executive’s income to be revealed. CEO Christopher Luxon received NZ$5.08 million in total, including base pay of $1.51 million, a $1.59 million cash bonus and share incentives worth $1.56 million. It’s understood that planned reforms in NZ will see greater transparency introduced in the future, but in the meantime the only detail provided of other top executives is a salary ‘band’ which sees seven NZ staffers on more than $1 million a year. The senior executive team listed on the carrier’s website includes chief revenue officer Cam Wallace, chief people officer Jodie King, chief operations officer Bruce Parton, chief strategy officer Stephen Jones, chief digital officer Avi Golan, and chief financial officer Rob McDonald. Salaries in 2016/17 for this group ranged from NZ$2.21 million down to $1.04 million.

A welcome addition to the airline Million Dollar Club this year was Regional Express executive director Lim Kim Hai. It has been a tough few years for Regional Express but it has now turned the corner and the company declared a dividend for the first time since 2012 “to reward its long-suffering shareholders”. Lim, who is the company’s major shareholder and takes no salary or bonus from Regional Express, will receive $2.475 million as a result, surely a just reward for his patience.

Other listed travel companies

Sealink Travel Group saw significant expansion during the year, as it consolidated the Captain Cook Cruises operations in Sydney and expanded into Western Australia — at the same time also growing its core Kangaroo Island tourism operations. Chief executive officer Jeff Ellison was once again in the million dollar club this year with a total pay package worth $654,000 — more than doubled to $1.427 million thanks to his significant shareholding in the company.

Bob East, CEO of Mantra Hospitality and newly appointed as chairman of Tourism Australia, saw his salary decline by 18% last year due to a lower bonus payout. He still remained in the million dollar club, with a base salary of $700,000 plus bonuses which took his package to $1.09 million. Mantra dividends on his shareholding took his total income to $1.178 million — a significant drop from last year’s $1.32m.

Event Hospitality, the company whose diversified portfolio includes the Rydges and QT Hotel chains as well as NSW ski resort Thredbo, farewelled its long-time CEO David Seargeant in fine style, with a total package worth more than $9.7 million. That included a base salary of $2 million, a further $1.97 million bonus, $3.46 million in share-based payments and a $2 million termination payout.

And finally this category also includes Dreamworld operator Ardent Leisure, whose now resigned CEO Deborah Thomas was also in the million dollar club with a total package worth $1.57 million. Thomas, who stepped down effective 01 July 2017, forfeited share-based short term incentive rewards but was paid a cash bonus of $167,500. The Ardent Leisure annual report notes she donated this in full to the Red Cross after the Dreamworld tragedy which saw the deaths of four people on one of the rides in October 2016.