Alpha moves towards an international image

People & business

Alpha Airports Group, the company that runs duty-free shops and purveys in-flight grub, has appointed Kevin Abbott as its chief executive following the recent surprise departure of his predecessor, Paul Harrison, to Standard Chartered.

Does this mean that Mohamed Al Fayed, who bought a 25 per cent stake in Alpha last November, is finally making his plans for the company public?

Far from it. According to Alpha's chairman, Rodney Galpin, the Egyptian- born Harrods boss wasn't consulted on Mr Abbott's appointment. Mr Fayed, father of Dodi, isn't even on the Alpha board.

Alpha is having to plan for the time next year when both Heathrow and Gatwick withdraw their licences for the company to run their duty-free shops, says Mr Galpin.

"Balanced against that we've got a new contract in Sri Lanka. We picked Mr Abbott because of his international marketing experience - our retail business is going to have to become far more international."

So why not link up with Mr Fayed? He's already got 10 UK airport outlets under the Signature brand which would have synergies with Alpha's 80 shops.

And another thing. Was Mr Galpin, formerly a chairman of Standard Chartered, responsible for helping Mr Harrison get his own job at that bank?

The urbane former Bank of England mandarin laughs: "I can assure you it was pure coincidence. I was as surprised as anyone."

John Ross resigned unexpectedly as chief executive of Charles Sidney, the Bradford-based car dealer and Mercedes specialist, on Monday night in what the company described ominously as "an amicable agreement".

It seems his partnership with the chairman, Raymond Edwards, spanning the four years since they floated Charles Sidney off from Albert Fisher, had come to the end of its course.

A spokesman for Charles Sidney said: "There was just not room for a full-time chairman and chief executive."

Mr Edwards takes over Mr Ross' role, while non-executive director John Mather in turn succeeds Mr Edwards as non-executive chairman.

There is no word of what Mr Ross plans to do next. He was educated at London University, once worked for British Leyland and Mercedes Benz and joined Charles Sidney in 1981. He rose to become managing director in 1986 and then chief executive two years ago.

Something certainly needs to be done at the company. Its shares have disappointed since it came to the market in 1993 at 100p a share - they now stand at 66.5p.

Congratulations to Denise Lewis on her new job as head of press relations at Orange. Ms Lewis was the last of the "gang of three" press spokespeople who were pipped for the top PR job at Cable & Wireless Communications, the company formed by the merger of three cable companies and Mercury last year.

Ms Lewis was from Bell CableMedia, while her opposite number at Cable & Wireless, Esther Kaposi, has returned to the freelance PR circuit. The other failed competitor for the top slot, former Nynex spokesman Alan Saunders, also left the company. The trio are understood to have trousered hefty pay-offs, the lucky things.

The man who did get the top spokesman job, Roy Paine, thought he was going to be working for Ruth Blakemore. But she then resigned unexpectedly, so he ended up reporting directly to Graham Wallace, chief executive of CWC.

Two tales reach me which suggest that Richard Branson still has a long way to go in turning around Virgin Trains, his company which took over Cross Country Trains and West Coast Trains.

Last Monday a colleague took one of Mr Branson's trains to Manchester. It was delayed for two-and-a-half hours because "the battery was flat".

And last Thursday another acquaintance took a train from London to Birmingham on which the service was so awful that when the train pulled in there were Virgin staff waiting on the concourse with complaint and compensation forms.

A Virgin Trains spokeswoman acknowledges the problems the new company faces, chiefly 25-year-old rolling stock which is nearing the end of its life, plus infrastructure suffering from decades of under-investment.

All of which makes me wonder: Is this why Mr Branson is withdrawing his own image from his advertising?

Personally, I think he should relax. It was, after all, Mussolini who promised to "make the trains run on time".

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