Outlook: BA counts cost of swipe-card strike. Now to learn the lesson

High roller; Goldfish flounders
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The Independent Online

With the immediate strike threat by check-in staff at Heathrow averted, Rod Eddington and his fellow managers at British Airways have begun the job of learning from what went wrong. At its most simplistic, lesson number one is not to provoke a stoppage at your biggest airport on the busiest weekend of the year, particularly when your director of customer services has already heightened the tension by accusing another section of the workforce of being skivvers.

On a deeper level, however, BA has a lot to learn about how to manage the process of change and what to do when that goes wrong. The £40m loss that the wildcat strikes have produced could have been a lot worse had it not been for the rapid intervention and cool head of the BA chief executive. When BA was faced with the cabin crew strike of 1997, Mr Eddington's predecessor Bob Ayling relied too much on bad advice and escalated the dispute by threatening staff with dismissal.

For one brief moment it looked as if this dispute could go the same way when unnamed BA executives began briefing against the check-in staff over the weekend, accusing them of "time theft" and Spanish practices of the type that used to infect Fleet Street.

Mr Eddington's personal intervention with the leaders of the three unions involved was successful in pouring oil on troubled waters. First by decoupling the issue of a 3 per cent pay rise from the introduction of swipe cards. And second by explicitly recognising that whilst electronic clocking-on may lead to changes in working practices, these can only be achieved through negotiation and not imposition.

There is a cynical view in some quarters that BA has merely delayed its get-tough approach to the workforce until the fuss has died down. Once the summer is over it will be less worried about provoking a strike. But the truth is that, for all the TV footage and the acres of newsprint devoted to scenes of holidaymakers camped out next to Terminal 4, the passengers inconvenienced by last month's strike are not BA's most profitable traffic. It would be infinitely more serious for BA if its flights from Heathrow were to be brought to a halt in September or October, when businessmen paying Club class fares return to the air.

The idea that BA would somehow be less damaged by a strike which took place during a "quiet" period, is also fiction. Heathrow is always busy. It is the service industry equivalent of the way the Japanese make cars: just-in-time travel.

Perhaps the most important lesson is just how easily hard won efficiency improvements can be thrown away, almost overnight. By the time he confronted BA's cabin crew, Mr Eddington's predecessor was well on the way to realising the £1bn in cost savings he set out to achieve. The strike set BA back years and marked the beginning of the end for its then chief executive. That, above all else, is one lesson Mr Eddington has no intention of repeating.

High roller

The aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce is one of only a handful of British companies that can genuinely describe themselves as world-class. World-class in the sense that their brand is recognised around the globe and world-class in the sense that they have a dominant position in a worldwide market.

In 1971 the company went bust developing the original RB211 engine. Today, with its modern successor the Trent engine, Rolls accounts for almost a third of the world market for aero-engines. It has long since seen off Pratt & Witney to become the world's number two engine company and is snapping at the heels of General Electric, the market leader. On some aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330, the workhorses of today's long-haul airline fleets, Rolls is way out in front with half the world market.

The Trent has been such a success that GE and P&W have had to combine forces to build an engine to compete on the new Airbus superjumbo, the A380.

In short, it is difficult to think of many other British companies which have the same presence in such a high-technology market where the board literally bets the ranch each time it sanctions a new product.

And yet for all this, Rolls remains an unloved company in the City, even when it brings in profits which beat analysts forecasts and sticks to its promises to deliver, which it did yesterday. It is true that Rolls' shares have been among the best performers since the FTSE 100 hit its nadir in March. But this is partly because they are geared to the performance of the index. Rolls' pension deficit as a proportion of market capitalisation is one of the biggest in the index because of its weighting towards equities so the more the index rises, the better Rolls' shares perform.

The record £19bn order book, the growth in highly profitable spares revenues, the achievement of cost reduction plans (without BA-style wildcat action) and the fact that Rolls-powered aircraft are flying more hours because the fleet is younger and more efficient - all this is taken with a pinch of salt.

This is not to say that everything about Rolls is perfect. Its margins remain frighteningly thin (3 per cent in civil aerospace), its accounting practices can be opaque, its record of diversification has been, to put it kindly, mixed, and it has tended to treat investors with a disdain which helps explain the frosty reception to this day.

But it is unquestionably doing more things right than wrong and we should remember that lest one day aero-engines becomes one more leading edge industry to slip through Britain's fingers.

Goldfish flounders

From one unloved business to another. There are not many companies that can lift the payout by 21 per cent, commit to distributing 40 per cent of earnings in dividends over the longer term and maintain investment in growth businesses all at the same time - and be quite so underwhelmed by the response as Centrica.

The owner of the British Gas brand does not look to be doing too much wrong. Despite being the UK's dominant energy supplier, it is increasing market share rather than losing it to new entrants, much to the irritation of the regulator. And it is investing in the growth of the business - £500m for wind farms, which the Government is putting so much of its puff behind, and £350m for more upstream assets in the US where it is long on customers and short on generating capacity.

It has even started to make some decent money out of flogging burglar alarms and AA break-down policies to all those captive domestic energy consumers when cross-selling has been a flop for most other utility companies that have attempted it.

What has left Centrica swimming against the tide of investor sentiment is Goldfish. The foray into the credit card business and Centrica's other unproven diversification, telephones, have so far cost £500m and patience is running low. Six months ago, Centrica's Sir Roy Gardner gave Goldfish until the end of this year to demonstrate it could swim on its own but at the half-way point things are looking worse not better.

Losses for the six months to the end of June rose to £30m and, although some of this can be explained by the cost of launching new products and setting up a new call centre, the flow is unmistakably in the wrong direction.

For all Centrica's muscle and its much-vaunted 43 million customers relations, Goldfish has remained a small a fish in a very big pool inhabited by some regular sharks. Lloyds TSB, which already owns 25 per cent of Goldfish, looks the obvious home for the remaining 75 per cent. The sooner Sir Roy lets the bank land Goldfish the quicker he will be allowed to come up for air.