The business on... Steve Ridgway, Chief executive, Virgin Atlantic

Branson's head pilot?

Indeed. Sir Richard's 51 per cent stake in the airline may be watered down this year, with ongoing talks about mergers and alliances with other carriers, but for the moment he is the man to whom Mr Ridgway files his flight plans.

So how's it all going?

Well the snow meant it wasn't the best festive season for Virgin, which is pretty cross about the way Heathrow practically closed down at the first sign of the white stuff. So much so that Mr Ridgway is now withholding some of the fees it pays Heathrow operator BAA until an investigation into the weather problems is completed.

Playing tough then?

His tenacity is one reason Sir Richard appointed to him the role almost 10 years ago. Another is that Mr Ridgway is happy to take a back seat, keeping Virgin operating smoothly, while his bearded boss does the media calls for which he is famed.

No clashes at all?

They appear to be as thick as thieves, having first bonded in the Eighties when Mr Ridgway was working for Cougar Marine, the company that built the Virgin Challenger powerboats with which Sir Richard sought to break transatlantic crossing records. His future airline employee was the man on the throttle.

That was a lucky break then?

In some ways, yes. But Mr Ridgway already had some experience of working for powerful business folk his first job was at Cavenham Foods, which was owned by Sir James Goldsmith. Cougar Marine was one of the businesses of Ted Toleman, the motoring entrepreneur. He will also have learnt a bit about how to work with potentially difficult folk from his two-year stint as a teacher.

So BAA should expect him to drive a hard bargain?

Definitely. He's renowned for both working and playing hard. He likes driving his Willys 2 Jeep, which he restored himself, and spends a lot of his time messing about in boats (with sails, these days, rather than powerful engines).

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