High-flying businessmen plot against Qantas chiefs

SOME of Australia's highest-profile businessmen, including ad man John Singleton and former Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon, have been linked to secret talks on an audacious bid to clean out the airline's management.

Under the plan put to key shareholders and unions two months ago, a group of investors - including financier Mark Carnegie and former Qantas finance boss Peter Gregg - are considering buying a cornerstone stake in the airline and agitating for a change in its strategic direction.

The businessmen have been repeatedly rumoured during the past year to be preparing to make a play for Qantas, and the latest talks with key shareholders confirm their intentions. However, the plans have emerged as Qantas' share price is languishing near historical lows.

Mr Singleton said he was unaware of the latest speculation because he had been in the US, but he stood by his recent comments that the airline had made the wrong choices in selecting Leigh Clifford as chairman and Alan Joyce as chief executive.

''Who wouldn't be interested [in Qantas]?'' he told The Age on Monday when asked about investors considering a bid for a cornerstone stake. ''There is $3 billion in cash sitting in the bloody thing.''

Despite public denials from some including Mr Gregg on Monday, sources close to both Qantas and the consortium say the plan to buy a stake and unseat the existing management team is ''still live''.

Mr Gregg, now the finance boss of construction giant Leighton Holdings, is seen by some as the likely Qantas CEO-designate, giving him the chance to take the position Mr Joyce beat him to more than four years ago.

Although Qantas' proposed alliance with Emirates has helped to lift its share price, the airline remains vulnerable to a hostile bid. Its earnings are set to at least halve this financial year as it bears the brunt of a so-called capacity war with Virgin Australia in the domestic market.

The latest plan comes five years after a Macquarie Bank-led $11 billion takeover bid for Qantas failed.

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