Commentary: Come in Number 1, your time's up

Click to follow
The current debate over whether the retirement age for men and women should be harmonised at 60 or 65 must all seem rather academic round at British Airways.

Lord King was only two years short of pensionable age when he took up the BA chairmanship 11 years ago. When he relinquishes the job next summer to become life president, he will be 75.

Does it really matter that Lord King's friends on the BA board have chosen to honour him in this way? On most counts the answer is no. If Michael Heseltine can call himself President of the Board of Trade, then why can't John King be president of British Airways? After all, he has done more to restore the fortunes of BA than Mr Heseltine is likely to do to redress Britain's balance of payments.

The idea of long-serving executives becoming presidents in their twilight years may be something more familiar to the American corporate scene than to quoted British companies, and generally it is a title bestowed on company founders.

But neither does that matter. Lord King may not have founded BA but he surely did resurrect it from the moribund organisation he first encountered back in 1981. Nor is it the case that he will be paid a king's ransom for the job - not that Lord King needs the money, since he possesses other directorships, and his BA pension is secure.

The potential objections to his new sinecure are what he may chose to do with it, and why he is waiting a further year before fully handing over the reins of power.

There can be few things more disconcerting for managers than having Lord King bearing down on them from above - unless it is Lord King peering over their shoulders. In this respect it is imperative that BA's next chairman, Sir Colin Marshall, be left to get on with the job without being distracted or second- guessed.

Sir Colin must be allowed to exert his own style and make his own decisions, free from the attentions of any back-seat pilot. The suspicion, however, is that he is now on a one-year trial.

It is hard to begrudge Lord King this small slice of lasting fame even though, as he himself said yesterday, his greatest contribution, and the one for which he would like to be remembered, was the revitalisation of BA from an ailing state- owned business into one of the world's most profitable airlines.

On balance, however, it is not a precedent that other companies should follow. Former prime ministers and sporting stars are best left to retire gracefully and quietly. There is no reason why that maxim should not apply also to businessmen.