Business leaders pay their respects

The chairmen of BA and BP have earned the plaudits of their peers in this year's poll to find the bosses' boss. Paul Farrelly reports

British Airways chairman Sir Colin Marshall has shrugged off the challenge of his arch nemesis Richard Branson - among his peers, at any rate - to top this year's poll of Britain's business leaders.

Sir Colin shares the honours as the country's most impressive industrialist with Sir David Simon, chairman of British Petroleum, who came from nowhere to topple Lord Hanson last year.

Both took 11 per cent of the vote, according to the annual poll of captains of industry conducted by leading pollsters MORI and again published exclusively by the Independent on Sunday.

As dramatic as the two knights' rise is Lord Hanson's fall. The takeover king, once feared on both sides of the Atlantic, topped the vote six times from 1988 to 1994, but this time failed to gain a single mention among the 131 top executives polled by MORI.

Reputation, it seems, is no substitute for performance and the result caps a dismal year for Hanson. Following a City slating of its demerger plans, the conglomerate was the worst performing share in the blue chip FT-SE 100 index.

BP and BA, meanwhile, turned in stunning performances, beating the index handsomely as the strategies laid down by Hanson's opposite numbers paid dividends.

"My approach has always been focused on the absolute importance of the consumer," Sir Colin said this weekend from Muscat, during a business tour of the Middle East.

"Climbing the mountain is the easy part. The more difficult bit is staying up there, because people are determined to knock you off."

The comments would strike a chord with Mr Branson, who tied with Sir Colin in second place last year, but increased his vote none the less to stay in third place - the fifth time in five years Mr Branson has been ranked in the leading troika.

Controversially, however, while knighthoods and lordships have been strewn like confetti on his peers, Virgin's flamboyant founder has never been offered an award.

This weekend Mr Branson is in Switzerland with his family before preparing for his latest attempt to break the round the world ballooning record.

There will be no respite, however, in Virgin's bitter battle with BA to extract concessions at Heathrow as the price for the flag carrier's planned link-up with American Airlines.

Sir Colin, 63, has more fish to fry these days than "Open Skies". As a member of the great and the good, he is also chairman of car importer Inchcape, deputy chairman of BT and a director of Midland Bank owner HSBC Holdings, IBM UK, Qantas and the New York Stock Exchange.

As president of the Confederation of British Industry, he also hit the headlines last week, announcing that business had nothing to fear from a Labour government.

He joined BA in 1983 from retail group Sears, following a working life mostly spent in the travel and transport industry. As chief executive, he steered BA through privatisation in 1987, with then chairman Lord King, to become the world's most profitable airline in the 1990s.

Last year, the chief executive reins were handed over to the ambitious former company secretary, Robert Ayling, one of several "young guns" to feature in the MORI poll.

The new blood gaining recognition for the first time also includes Barclays' Martin Taylor, BT's Sir Peter Bonfield and John Browne, Sir David Simon's chief executive at BP.

Sir David was almost unknown outside the oil industry until he was appointed as BP's chief executive in 1992 after the confrontational Bob Horton - newly knighted and now at Railtrack - was ousted. Since then, BP's shares have rocketed almost fourfold to make it once again - slimmer, vastly more profitable and now worth pounds 39bn - Britain's biggest company.

"For us the pleasure of 1996 was the improvement of our competitiveness and value in the industry," Sir David said this weekend of BP's continued, and seemingly inexorable rise over the past year. "People saw BP as a recovery stock. What they underestimated was our ability to improve even further. The industry was used to Shell doing well, not BP."

BP now has the highest return on capital of all the major oil companies and in 1997 will further extend its global reach into new areas such as Azerbaijan, Algeria, Vietnam and the Gulf of Mexico.

Oils and airlines were not alone in propelling their leaders to business recognition, according to the MORI survey. Though hardly a newcomer, the most impressive rise in the rankings, from 17th to fourth, came from Lord MacLaurin, chairman of Tesco.

Again, the rankings underline performance. Over the past year, Tesco has overtaken Sainsbury's in market worth, as its retail strategy has clearly eclipsed its arch-rival for the first time.

Since MORI started the survey 13 years ago, apart from this year's joint winners and Lord Hanson, only GEC's Lord Weinstock (in 1983 and 1993) and former ICI chief Sir John Harvey-Jones (1985-1987) have topped the poll.

Most impressive industrialists

Rank Industrialist Company % of vote

'95 '96

1= Sir David Simon BP 13% 11%

1= Sir Colin Marshall BA 8% 11%

3 Richard Branson Virgin 8% 9%

4 Lord MacLaurin Tesco 2% 8%

5= Archie Norman Asda 5% 7%

5= George Simpson GEC 3% 7%

7= Sir Iain Vallance BT 2% 5%

7= Sir Richard Greenbury Marks & Spencer 4% 5%

9= Sir Clive Thompson Rentokil 3% 4%

9= Sir Richard Sykes Glaxo Wellcome 3% 4%

9= Martin Taylor Barclays - 4%

9= Sir Peter Bonfield BT - 4%

9= Sir Richard Evans British Aerospace - 4%

9= Robert Ayling BA - 4%

15 John Browne BP - 3%

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