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Part Ten: The Jetset Years – Characters in the Room

May 9, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email
So where – exactly – do you start with this bit about ‘my’ life at Jetset; because there are so many characters and so many people that I worked with, played with, almost lived with, for that first 15 years that I simply cannot fit everyone in.  So at the outset let me apologise – if you don’t feature – it’s nothing but a space issue.  I am making an effort to keep these tales to somewhere around the 3000 word mark – which is about the max that you will read in one session. I could probably write 3000 words on a feller called Clarke alone (I won’t) but you get the drift.

I will do the best that I can to highlight those that most affected me – and will try to pick out other characters when I talk about events and activities and occurrences – which is the area that I might have to resort to nicknames or pseudonyms – just to protect the innocent you understand.
So – where to start – at the top I guess is the best place:
Isi J Leibler (MD and Living Legend)
There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever in my mind that IJL was one of – if not the MOST influential figures in the Australian travel industry.  He certainly ranks alongside the likes of “Skroo” Turner, Geoff Harris, Stephen Rich, Peter Windsor, James Strong and a whole host of others – but I think he tops the list.
Putting it quite simply he changed the way the travel business in Australia operated – he started in the mid sixties (when he opened Sunshine Travel with Bono Weiner) and finished in the mid nineties (bought out – well tossed out really – by Air New Zealand) and in between he did what all influencers do – he ‘made a difference’!
He was – again without a shadow of doubt a difficult man to work for – he was foul tempered, foul tongued, impatient and (at times) hard to read, he had no time for fools or people who did not agree with him and he would show his displeasure with guests or people we were trying to impress in an instant – if he did not agree with what they were saying or were about.
Over the years he delegated a tremendous amount to the two Davids- especially in later years to David Clarke and when he got rid of Clarke and made a ‘comeback’ in an attempt to restore both his business and his position in the business he was even harder to work with.  As I have related elsewhere he and I fought continuously for my final three months at Jetset – usually in the afternoon – over a scotch (or 4/5 in his case) and none of it was to my benefit.
He loved a Scotch – Chivas on the Rocks was his gig – and legend has it that in the early 80’s – when we were at the MLC building and later at 550 Bourke Street – he and David Grant used to polish off a bottle a day between them, starting from 2.00pm.   That was OK for Isi – because for the most part he had a chauffeur but how DG ever drove home after those events I don’t pretend to know – of course they ‘might’ just be an urban myth.
Legend also says that he was constantly harassed by his mother – she had an office on the top floor at Jetset – about the running of the business.  “It’s your fault Isi” she used to say – referring to David Clarke – “you hired him, you put him in charge, so it’s your fault” – she apparently used to say to him in the early/mid nineties before he finally got rid of David Clarke.
Isi had a unique way of negotiating with suppliers – especially airlines – he would simply string things out -for as long as possible refusing any/all offers until either the time expired and the status quo clause (that he had written into almost all his agreements) came into play; or the other party simply caved in through sheer exhaustion and signed.  You see back then the business that Jetset produced was important – but when he made his comeback things had changed and his tactics did not – which made for many confrontations.
Not the least of these was the one huge fight with Sandra McPhee (then with Qantas) that led to the creation of NAITA.  It seems that on those particular day IJL ‘lost it completely’ and referred to Sandra McPhee in a manner that can only be described as “gutter language” and that she responded by basically saying – if you think you are getting a deal for that rabble you call your family after that – then think again.
This fight went to QF Board level – Sandra was supported by the board – and we (Jetset) had to create a second branded network – queue NAITA and the beginning of the end of Jetset as we knew it.
For all of that – the difficulty, the frustration, the bitterness and the anger I do not regret one moment of my time working for Isi J Leibler, it was an education and my time in his ‘senior staff’ ranks was THE highlight of my working life.  If I had it to do all over again – I would not change one element of it.
David Grant (Deputy MD)
Can I start by saying interesting character, very smart man and probably the most predictable of the three Directors that I am highlighting here.  Having said that let me also say he was a most unattractive man, very hard to like and uncomfortable (he had personal hygiene issues) to be in close quarters with.  He was the most ‘non-observant’ Jewish member of the business – he rarely took Jewish holidays – except Yum Kippur (which Isi insisted that he – and every other Jewish staff member) took, and he too had a foul temper and an equally foul mouth.
He was however a clever man – and for the most part he was predictable – you pretty much knew how DG would react to any given situation before you took it to him, which of course meant if you had problem you chose the moment carefully indeed.  He used to like to interview (what he called) problem agents and give them a hard time – and he really did give them a hard time, I have seen a number of (so called) independent travel agents squirming under a DG quizzing.  But I would pick the timing – if I wanted him to come down hard I would arrange the appointment for either mid/late morning (pre-lunch) or very late (1600 onwards – and post 3/4 Scotches) afternoon.  If I wanted him to go easy – because I thought I had it ‘under control’ I should use the 1400 – 1500 (early drinks) time slot.
His PA (Toni Gray – in the early days) would bring his first Scotch at 1400 and thereafter one every 30 minutes until he finished around 1730.  So peak time for a tricky issue was just before the third Scotch.  Had a difficult freebie ticket request to get past (ask at 1500) – want to get the OK for a jaunt that was a bit dodgy (ask at 1500) – want to change directions/gears on a project (ask at 1530) – inevitably they went through because he was less observant.
I do know that others that reported direct to DG (F&T and GSA) used similar tactics so the competition for the 1430 – 1530 time slots was pretty heavy.  Reporting direct to DG (instead of via DC) was a genuine working bonus – especially in the early days of my career – not so much so at the end.
David sort of slipped out of favour for a while but made his comeback at the same time as Isi.  By then his afternoon drink had moved from scotch to Rosemount Chardonnay (YUK) and the effects were different – so was the smell – as he used to quaff the stuff like water and breathe out the fumes as he talked.  Most unattractive and unpleasant.
There are any number of DG stories – people like Frank Wright have a collection – and some of them may well surface in a future instalment covering just those sorts of incidents.  The incident with his false teeth, after drinks, in Turkey (Istanbul or Ankara – Frank will know as he was there) springs to mind – but there are others
You can’t tell a Jetset story with mentioning David Grant and he certainly played an important part -particularly during my early Jetset life.
David Clarke – (Executive Director)
If you can’t tell the Jetset story without David Grant then the certainly the same applies to ‘the other’ David – some might say THE DAVID – David Clarke.
David was (most probably) a genuine certified genius, he was way out there with his vision and his ideas he simply left mere mortals behind, but like all in the genius category he was ‘on the edge’ – right on that very fine line between genius and not quite so.  He was  completely unpredictable and as such very hard to work in harmony with.  As I have said before I was lucky in my early years (pre New Zealand) that I reported to David Grant and not via DC.
When I was transferred to New Zealand I was also transferred to the DC reporting line and I stayed there until he left Jetset after his fallout with Isi.  He was difficult to  deal with in NZ because he – and the rest of the Australian members of the board were almost always in dispute with the Air NZ members and I was the middle man.  In the first place I was unable to discuss the Jetset NZ /Air NZ deal in detail with my Air NZ counterparts because parts of it were kept secret from them.
In short the Jetset/Air NZ deal was the same globally – but in New Zealand we were restricted to working on the same deal as the other NZ groups – which was a much lesser deal.  I actually had (about) a 10% advantage but I was not allowed to use it to boost sales – it actually did not even hit the Jetset NZ revenue stream but went into other revenue sources.  On one occasion -and one only – I got to use the extra income – and that was after a huge dispute at board level (if memory serves me correctly) – and I had to invent a reason that would be accepted by the local guys.  I think I invented a huge currency gain or something like that to cover up the extra commission and for two weeks ran a very successful dollar deals (hotel rooms for one dollar per night) campaign.
We generated huge US business in the two weeks, our agents loved it, but we had to reel it in after two weeks because everyone else was getting very antsy about it all.
When I returned to Oz I stayed in the DC reporting line – and put up with the very good (and there was some very good) and the very bad and there was plenty of that.
David was intensely interested in Jetset Distribution – it was after all his brainchild so he kept a close watch on me and my division from the day I came back from NZ.  David used to like an early morning coffee and as I was an early starter (along with my PA Michelle Ryan) my coffee machine was always on and available early.  To make matters worse David liked my coffee mix – so he would wander down every morning for a coffee and a chat with me – just what you want David C at 0730; then he would go next door and harass Tim Wagg after 0800.  The trouble is at 0730 he had his ‘bright ideas’ and inevitably at east once a week some new thought bubble would be rolled out as a result of these meetings.
Everyone remembers DC’s memos – all on coloured paper Green (admin) Blue (Finance) Yellow (IT) White (General Distribution) and Pink (Urgent).  If you ever got a Pink memo with a red urgent sticker – then it was probably already way too late to fix whatever the issue was.
DC used to fire out memos after every meeting and often you would be ‘forced’ to sit through him dictating the memo into his dictaphone before he considered the meeting finished.  I recall after one of our international meetings when my NZ team was in Melbourne – he dictated the complete report on a two hour meeting onto his dictaphone (took about 15/20 minutes – I guess) only to find he had forgotten to put in a tape.
Undeterred he went and got a fresh tape – and proceeded to repeat the process and I swear not a single world, comma, dot point or punctuation mark was changed between versions.
He was also quite good at calculating decimal percentages in his head to about 3 decimal points – we figured he was quicker than a calculator – and during the same NZ meeting he demonstrated his quick calculation ability that Chris Jones (Sales Manager – NZ) – forgetting where he was – simply flicked his calculator into the waste paper bin by the board room table when DC beat him to the punch on a set of numbers.  That took a little explaining if I recall correctly.
Now we all know David liked getting his own way – with everything and he loved writing letters to those in authority when ‘they got things wrong’ – or when he though his ideas were better (most of the time).  His cluster camera concept – written to then Premier Joan Kirner – around the time of the State Bank fiasco and the Pyramid building society collapse was a masterpiece.
It came about because he got two speeding tickets on the one day whilst driving to/from work (he lived in Mount Eliza) – so the “Cluster Camera Concept” came into being.  In short it was multiple cameras at multiple locations – snapping away constantly and grabbing unsuspecting motorists (not unlike a speed cameras now – of course) as they made their way along Victoria’s road.
David reasoned that his concept would – reduce the road toll (by putting more motorists off the road), reduce the state’s debt (through increased revenue), save the State Bank (the state could invest more) and (eventually) reduce wear and tear on the roads as we were all forced to resort to using horses and carts.  It was a brilliant piece of work – shared with every state MP – every state Premier – the PM and his cabinet and all DC’s senior staff.  What Joan Kirner ever thought of it we never found out.
There were also incidents like the great chocolate teddy biscuit rip off – which resulted in a years supply of said biscuits being delivered (by Arnott’s) to Jetset and DC sharing his spoils at morning and afternoon meetings for months afterwards.  A similar type of incident involving Coca Cola – which he drank by the bucketful daily – resulted in an over supply of that drink being available to him for months – as if he needed a bigger fix!
There were stories of upturned desks – following the great Jetset Bag over ordering fiasco – smashed phones (as a result of being violently spun around inside a waste paper bin) – instant cleaning off of desk tops (at night – by DC himself) as a result of non compliance with his ‘clean desk policy’.  Staff would come in the next morning to find the contents of their desk in the rubbish bin – if they were lucky or simply gone – if the action occurred before the cleaners came through.
Some of the disputes with the Air NZ half of the board led to some of the most amazing exchanges of correspondence that I have ever seen – and as the local man I got copies of most of it.  There was one about the need to position a geo synchronous slowly orbiting satellite above the Air NZ Building in Auckland in order to keep a proper track of the real time in NZ (this after a dispute of an item in the minutes of a board meeting).
There was another from Norm McFarlane (NZ) which defined David speak for all the Air New Zealand staff that I got a look at – I wont say how but his initials were Norm Thompson – that was bloody hilarious. Definitions such as ‘the end of the world as we know it’ – meaning I am not happy at your response;  ‘Armageddon’ – meaning getting more serious but not yet ‘blood on the floor’ time and so on.
During my time in New Zealand there was also the Lobster Dinner fiasco – which resulted in the great Loganberry Pie debate – which led the next night to David and his guests being refused service at the Four Seasons (then The Regent Auckland) because DC would not put on a tie.  The subsequent debate – complete with the usual – “do you know who I am and who I represent?” type tirade was witnessed by a ‘local NZ travel writer’ who phoned me the next morning for comment.  Luckily I had not been present so could ‘genuinely’ not comment and – after calling Melbourne and talking directly with DC’s hard working PA – Pauline Caven – I was able to get the story killed – but it did cost me in the future with the same journalist who wanted a quid-pro-quo  for the favour.
As I said – There are simply so many stories that you cannot share them all and that will have to do for now – next time we will talk about ‘other characters’ – like Ken McQualter, Peter Love , Paul Van Loon, Frank Wright, Colin Knell and …………………………..
Peter Watson

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