A2 Milk's new chief executive, Jayne Hrdlicka, is relaxed about others crashing a party that the company has had to itself until recently.

The concept that has taken a2 Milk from being one of the market's smallest companies to one of its biggest has not escaped the world's big guns, but Hrdlicka is sanguine.

She says more players entering the fray can only grow the segment - more so than the company could do left to its own devices.

Most cows carry both A1 and A2-type proteins, but a2 Milk specialises in milk containing just the A2 protein, which it says can help people who have trouble digesting standard milk.

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A2 Milk really took off in Australia, and it now accounts for about 10 per cent of the fresh milk market in that country.

Its success across the Tasman acted as a springboard for its highly successful foray into the vast and lucrative Chinese infant formula market, helped in no small way by its popularity in the unofficial "daigou", or grey market, trading channels into the People's Republic.

Unlike many other largely conceptual companies, a2 Milk is backed by strong earnings growth, which gives market watchers more meat to sink their analytical teeth into.

The company is due to report its annual result this month and has already said its revenue for the June financial year would be around $922 million, which would be a 68 per cent increase on the previous year.

Last year, the company's net profit came to $90.6 million - up 198 per cent on the previous year.

Dual-listed a2 Milk has been a top performer on the sharemarket, trading today at $10.42, up from just $4.44 a year ago.

But in March, the share price took a hit when Nestle, the world's biggest food and beverage company, launched an A1-free brand of infant formula in China, and others are lining up to join the a2 club.

Hrdlicka, who has been in the hot seat for just two weeks, says pretenders to a2 Milk's throne face an uphill battle.

"The team has done a very good job in building a brand that has deep equity," she says.

"Competition is good for every category, so we fully expect that people will take a run at what we have opened up in terms of market opportunity, and that's great.

"It will build and grow the category much more quickly than we can do ourselves, and we think we are tough to beat in the strength we have in continuing to innovate."

The competition, so far, has not found it easy to compete in the A2 category, she says.

"Our great strength is that were very quick on our feet. We're very focused on making a difference with our consumers and we're very clear about what needs we're tapping.

"We are quite comfortable from the standpoint of where we sit in the market, and our ability to compete."

COUP

Attracting Hrdlicka to the top job was seen as a coup for a2 Milk.

She has a reputation as a very effective airline boss, leading Qantas' budget Jetstar operation from 2012 to late last year.

Jetstar grew to be one of the top five low-cost carriers in the world. During her time, it expanded in Asia, its jet operations in New Zealand started to make money and it took the bold step of launching into the regional market.

She had been touted as a possible successor to Qantas chief executive and founding Jetstar chief Alan Joyce, to lead the Qantas group when he moves on.

Hrdlicka's move to head Qantas' loyalty and digital ventures just before the surprise announcement she would take the a2 role was the sort of succession pathway taken by contenders for the group's top job.

AVIATION

"My time at Qantas was a phenomenal experience where I learned probably more than I could have in other industries," Hrdlicka says.

"In its own way, it's a fast moving consumer business at the end of the day and it has complex technical underpinnings in order to deliver a great experience to its customers, whether it is Qantas or Jetstar.

"You succeed by being smarter about your customer than anyone else, being clear about who you're serving and building everything else around that and ensuring that you've got a really engaged, empowered team, no matter where you work in the organisation that are really passionate about making a difference for your customers.

"It's one of the most complex industries in the world. You have extreme competition, low barriers to entry and especially in the Jetstar industry, you're exposed to all the competition that comes from the big markets like Asia.

"You have to be fast on your feet, you have to be comfortable with competition and prepared to make adjustments to your business very quickly, in order to succeed."

TRAVEL

Ironically, Hrdlicka will not be too far from a plane in her new role - she expects to be spending her time in Australia, New Zealand, China and the United States.

"How much, and where, I'm not too sure, but my guess is that I'm not going to be in any one place for more than two or three days a week."

Hrdlicka grew up in Kansas, in the American midwest. She attended university in Colorado then moved to the east coast.

She got a master's degree in business in New Hampshire and lived in Boston and New York for 10 years or so before moving to Sydney.

Her career started with strategic consulting firm Bain and Co, and later with a private equity firm Bain and Co had advised.

After experience in the "school of hard knocks", she returned to Bain and Co.
"With the benefit of that experience of actually making a strategy work, my first client, when I went back to Bain, was Joyce when he was at Ansett, and Rod Eddington, who was CEO of Ansett at the time," she says.

Her next client was Woolworths, which kicked off her career at the top end of the consumer business in Australia.

SOMETHING ABOUT A2

So what was it about a2 Milk that drew her away from aviation?

"A2 was an exceptional opportunity from my standpoint because it is a company that has already achieved a lot.

"It has a great brand, a great set of values, an extraordinary team that are very accomplished and a set of values that they have only just begun to tap," she says. "So that's a really hard opportunity to knock back."

Hrdlicka says a2 Milk has a clever and compelling business model.

"It's capital-light, it's innovative, it's building on very innovative principles with respect to partnership, and working with people who are best in class at doing what they do."

She sees a2 Milk as a disrupter that has changed the market dynamic.

It's not dissimilar, she says, to the successful technology companies - the disrupters in traditional industry segments who have found a way to use clever intellectual property to really make a difference for consumers and to generate superior returns to shareholders.

SEXISM

Asked if there is a level playing field for a woman in the male-dominated corporate world, Hrdlicka responds: "I don't think I would use the words 'level playing field' to describe my experience through my career.

"I think what's worked really well for me is not worrying about whether it's a level playing field or not, just focusing on doing a great job, and making sure that everything I do, I'm being super straight, I'm not playing games and I'm making a difference," she says.

"And then along the way I figured out that I really wanted to ensure that I was a woman working with companies that had great values, that I was working with people who had great values and genuinely cared about making a difference."

US AMBITIONS

A2 Milk has big plans for the United States. The company has said its financial outlook for the US assumes investment of about US$25m over the course of 2018 and 2019 before positive monthly earnings are achieved in the 2020 fiscal year.
Hrdlicka says it is still early days for a2 Milk in the US.

"From all that I have learned prior to joining, and in the past couple of weeks clearly, speaks to the growth opportunity in both Asia and the US," she says.

"Out of China, obviously we've had very significant success with our formula product and in the US our fresh milk product is performing really well.

"And we're having the same sort of consumer response in the US that we had in Australia, which is really exciting."

Jayne Hrdlicka

●Job: Managing director and chief executive, The a2 Milk Co
●Age: 56
●Previous roles: At Qantas, Jetstar Airways, Woolworths
●Other positions: President of Tennis Australia
●Education: The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth; Colorado College
●Family: Husband and two boys, aged 13 and 10
●Last book read: The Mindful Athlete
●Last film: The Ant Man
●Last holiday: Fiji
●Sports: Tennis and skiing