Interview with Neil Chatfield

Chairman, Virgin Blue Holdings Limited; Chairman, HomeGround Services

Neil Chatfield left school at 18 and never studied full time again. Yet today he's one of Australia's leading businessmen - an expert in the notoriously dangerous sphere of mergers and acquisitions.

In 2007, his peers chose him as Australia's most outstanding chief financial officer for helping to steer Toll Holdings through a decade of massive expansion. In that time Toll was transformed from a small regional trucking company into a major international logistics corporation with road, rail, sea and air operations in more than 50 countries.

During his ten years at Toll, Chatfield and his boss, chief executive Paul Little, successfully negotiated their way through a corporate minefield of legislation, the high profile takeover of Patrick Corporation, a forced demerger, and the continuous scutiny of regulators, including the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

However in 2008 Chatfield suddenly stunned the financial media with the news that he was resigning as Toll's CFO and executive director.

Instead he would cross to the other side of the corporate table, leaving the daily hubbub of management forever for the more strategic confines of the boardroom.

Gamble pays dividends

Today Chatfield is the chairman of two of the most dynamic of Australia's new generation of companies - Virgin Australia, locked in a do-or-die battle of the skies with Qantas, and Seek Ltd, the country's largest online job site.

He also sits on the boards of three other Australian Stock Exchange-listed companies - Transurban Group which owns toll roads around Australia; Grange Resources which owns iron ore mines in Tasmania; and Recall Ltd, one of the world's two largest information storage organisations. In his spare time, he chairs Homeground Services, a not-for-profit body helping the homeless in Melbourne.

It's been a long journey since Chatfield left Maribyrnong High School (now College) in Melbourne's inner west to begin work as a teenage internal auditor with a subsiduary of TNT Ltd, the transport empire.

But though he has worked full time ever since, Chatfield took every opportunity to extend his education, enrolling for a relentless series of night classes that lasted for 11 years. "I was keen to climb the business ladder and learn new management skills," he explains. For six years Chatfield studied at Footscray Institute of Technology (now Victoria University) for an undergraduate Diploma of Business. That was followed by a further two years at Swinburne Institute of Technology (now Swinburne University of Technology) for a graduate diploma in Accounting, then two more at RMIT to earn a postgraduate diploma in Information Technology.

However it was the three years Chatfield spent at UTS becoming a Masters of Business: Finance and Accounting once the family moved to Sydney in 1986 that he credits with spearing the most significant boost to his career progression.

By then he was married with two young sons. Studying at UTS after work for another TNT offshoot was a much tougher commitment now that he had a young family.

What does he remember about his UTS course?

"It broadened my understanding and raised me up to a higher level than anything I'd ever done before. The intensity was greater, and I could apply what I was learning to what I was doing every day. That's the key. The relevancy of the course makes you a better student. At the time I enrolled I was thinking of doing an MBA, but I chose the course I did because it seemed more relevant to what I was doing at work involved with mergers and acquisitions."

What advice would he give to anyone contemplating doing a similar course today?

"You've got to want to do it. Don't just do enough to get through, do as much as you can. The quality of the education at UTS is very strong. Make the most of the opportunity while you are there."

He predicts continuing exciting times ahead for the companies he is associated with.

"At Virgin, we've not only changed the landscape forever in Australia but created the model for modern airlines. We've got really exciting times ahead with three major airlines (Ethiad, Air NZ and Singapore) as shareholders. Seek has done exceeding well but there's no notion of taking a rest. We live in a dynamic market place and we are determined to turn the company from a good one into a great one. I wake up every morning and can't wait to get on with it.".

Words: Steve Meacham February 2014