Twenty Questions: Sir Michael Bishop

Sir Michael Bishop, 58, joined British Midland in 1964. He led a management buy-out in 1978 and was knighted in 1991. A fan of opera, he owns the D'Oyly Carte
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The Independent Online

1 What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

1 What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

At 16 I got a summer holiday job at Manchester Airport with a small charter business and realised I wanted to run my own airline. I achieved that at 36.

2 Do you have a business philosophy?

It's absolutely essential in business that you have substance, and not spin. One of my other philosophies has been to stay within the constraints of a subject or an industry of which I have knowledge. There are a small number of people who are genuinely competent at running diverse businesses, but I think for most people it's quite a challenge to concentrate successfully on just one, and do that properly.

3 Has British Midland suffered because of the growth in low-cost airlines?

The worrying thing for the industry is that only one of these airlines makes money, which is Ryanair who made £52m last year. All the others, including Virgin Express and Go have lost huge amounts. The fares will have to go up because you can't stay in business, long-term, if you lose money.

People have this mindset that low-cost airlines are cheap but they're not always as cheap as you think they are. The easyJet top price to Nice is £313. That's why we've not suffered much because people compare prices. They've reduced the margins in the whole of industry but the market will find its own level.

4 What is the best decision you've ever made?

To build up a portfolio of slots at Heathrow Airport, a decision I took in 1969. Now, 31 years later, we are the second-largest holder of slots, after British Airways.

5 What was your biggest mistake?

I prematurely invested in London City Airport in 1987. It's now a great success but we were probably 12 years ahead of our time and it proved a very expensive mistake. It's actually better to be the consolidator rather than the pioneer.

6 What was the first lesson you learned in business?

That what goes around comes around. You have to use the same set of disciplines all through life. I learned early that if you short-change people it always comes back in some form or other.

7 If you didn't run British Midland which company would you most like to run?

I've got no great yearning to run a business or get involved in the mobile phone industry. Many people take the view that it doesn't really matter what industry they're in as long as it gives them great financial success, and once they've achieved that they can't wait to get out of the door.

I've been able to combine both in that I'm financially successful and I've thoroughly enjoyed my job. After 35 years I've no hesitation in saying I would do it all over again.

8 If your briefcase was about to be confiscated which three things would you retrieve?

I've never carried a briefcase. I carry only my passport and a mobile phone.

9 What was the happiest and the worst day of yourworking life?

One was when I bought the business in August 1978; the second happiest was when we won the right to compete with British Airways on domestic routes, in 1982. The third happiest day will be when we get our new Atlantic licences.

The worst day was the Kegworth crash, in January 1989. (The death toll was 47, and 79 aboard escaped with injuries. A British Midlands 747 from Heathrow to Belfast, diverted to East Midlands airport with engine trouble, crashed on the M1 embankment. A cockpit mix-up caused the wrong engine to be shut down.)

10 What's your greatest personal indulgence?

I'm not interested in racing cars and I don't have an expensive yacht so I'm very boring in that way. I own the D'Oyly Carte Opera, which is a bit of an indulgence, but in the whole scheme of things it's not a big incursion into my resources.

11 Do you think aboutretiring?

I think a great deal about the issues of retirement, rather than the actuality of doing it. The important thing is never to work beyond the day you don't enjoy it. It takes great will power to pick the right moment and there is nothing worse than for others to see you declining before you realise it yourself. The other thing is that people, on the whole, retire too early.

One of the great scandals of modern life is the billions spent on the retirement of police officers under the age 50. It's a total scam because if people are deeply unhappy in their work and need a new challenge and a new career, they can make that change at any time. Lord King (the former British Airways chairman) is 84, yet he didn't come into the airline business until he was 61.

12 Lord King, once called you "a cute little brute". Is that a fair description?

I know John well but I would never be discourteous and ask him if he said it. The other description I liked rather better, was when Neil Kinnock called me "a cordial old Tory", although I didn't like the "old" so much, bearing in mind that we're the the same age. (Both are 58, and Sir Michael is one month older.)

13 You've ordered Airbuses worth £1.2bn. What are you going to do with them?

If you decide to go into a new phase of business, you can't just turn it on at six months' notice. You've got to do a lot of planning particularly for long haul. It's been a much less painful transition for British Midland than someone starting from scratch, because we've been operating at Heathrow for more than 30 years.

What people don't understand about the open-skies agreement is that you can operate from almost anywhere you want in Britain. The only restricted UK airports are Heathrow and Gatwick.

14 Who do you most admire in the aviation industry?

The smartest and most competent person is Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair. He has been spectacularly successful, and he dwarfs everyone else who has come into the industry in the last 20 years. He's started a business with a clean sheet of paper and without the baggage of history. Fortunately, anyone on the scene today has been able to take advantage of the liberalisation and deregulation, but when I came into the industry I spent a lot of years knocking down the entry barriers.

15 Have you any plans to float British Midland?

In 1997, I demerged part of the business which became British Regional Airlines and that has done well, except for the share price. I believed that business would incrementally improve its performance and that's what happened.

I'm not sure British Midland could do that because we've put a lot of investment into new routes and aircraft and our profit line can be a bit wavy. I won't bring a company to the market unless I'm really satisfied that once it's floated it will perform in terms of profitability and dividend.

I know what the City wants and maybe one day British Midland will deliver, but not at the moment.

16 Are you easy to work for and what makes you lose your temper?

I think others should make the judgement on whether I'm easy to work for. I rarely lose my temper. When I have a bad patch, I go quiet which some people say is more fearful than actually having a row.

17 Will you be supporting William Hague in the next general election?

A lot of my peer group have tried to airbrush out the previous 18 years and pretend that all the time they were hoping for a political change. Politicians are wary of that. They prefer you to say what you are so they know where they stand.

I am a card-carrying member of the Conservative party and have been since I was 17. Although I've found this Government friendly towards me, I'm not going to be anything other than I am.

18 Are you pro-Europe and the single currency?

I'm wary of some of the arguments being used to keep us out because they are not to do with the main issue but other issues, like our national character and identity, which, quite rightly, people want to protect.

You have a relatively small group of British people who travel regularly in Europe and see it at first hand and deal with Europeans. The majority go to the Costas, or on the beach and that's Europe as far as they are concerned. People don't realise how destructive that is because they don't see the degree of what's been achieved in Europe. They relate it to their own experience, which is damaging.

19 Who are you going to pass your airline to when you retire?

I don't think family businesses are successful. When it works, it is the exception rather than the rule.

20 In terms of personal wealth, how much is enough?

Money is like a base metal in that how you use it and what you create with it is far more important than the possession of it. Money doesn't equal spend, it equals investment. I'm a very committed capitalist and I believe investment from the private sector does as much good, if not more good in the world, than capital invested from the state sector.

Money isn't my god. You should eat only two meals a day and in fact you shouldn't do that at my age.