My Biggest Mistake: Sir Michael Bishop

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Sir Michael Bishop, 51, is chairman of British Midland, the UK's second largest scheduled air carrier. Born in Cheshire, he attended Mill Hill School and then entered the family's commercial vehicle company. But he soon decided his long-term career would be in civil aviation. In 1963, he set up an aircraft-handling business for a local airline at Manchester Airport. When the airline was taken over by British Midland a year later, he joined the company and has remained with it. He is also chairman of Channel 4 television and D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust, and was knighted in 1991.

Let me start by saying I never look back. I always look forward. But you can't go through life without making mistakes - in either your personal life or business. It's all a question of degree - whether it is recoverable or leads to permanent damage. Every decision you make is a matter of fine judgement. The scale of the mistake always comes down to the scale of your own judgement.

So far, although I've made mistakes - and made some whoppers - they haven't been great enough to bring the business down. But the 'so far' is important because it is essential not to be complacent. You can make mistakes in the mature part of your career as much as in the developing part.

Undoubtedly, the single piece of judgement that was a mistake which was recoverable was the decision to be a pioneer. British Midland was the first into the City Airport in London's Docklands in October 1987. We got out in the spring of 1991, and Brymon, which moved in at about the same time as us, has just come out. Others have gone in since with different types of operation.

I suppose the whole episode cost us the thick end of pounds 10m, which for a company of our size is a large sum of money - the kind of money I'd prefer not to lose. Our strength since then has been sufficient to withstand it, but it is very annoying.

Mowlem had built a terrific airport terminal and the company was immensely supportive of us. I felt there was the right combination of people - when you get the right co-operation, you feel good about a project. And I really felt there was a good prospect of us developing a strong business there. The infrastructure is starting to come together on the ground, with roads being built and Docklands Light Railway going to Bank (though not to the airport). But although we thought there was sufficient then to support a limited number of air services, that turned out not to be the case. The mistake I made was to make a premature judgement. I should have let somebody else do the pioneering and moved in later. In a sense, it was a matter of timing. But it was still a fundamental error.

I think now that the City Airport will be a great success. It would have helped earlier if the Government had gone down there in numbers. I agree with the idea of private funding for the venture, but having government departments moving there would have provided confidence to the overall project.

The important thing, though, is that we perceived the level at which the mistake would become life-endangering and had the judgement to stop. It's very important to set limits, rather than just sticking in and hoping it will come right. If you don't do that, that is when a mistake can become irrecoverable.

Since then, we've done a lot of things that have been very successful, like developing new routes out of Heathrow, and I actually think we've gained enormous strength from making the mistake. We are a lot more careful, and if there has been any tendency towards omnipotence or complacency building up, then it was a good thing to have happen.

Mistakes can submerge you and overwhelm you if you don't put a limit on your exposure.

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