Odd couple lead Dan-Air's fight: As part of a series on Britain's business leaders, Michael Harrison visits the flight deck of the airline industry

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The Independent Online
THE STRUGGLE to save Dan-Air could scarcely have brought together two more contrasting characters from the world of aviation than Richard Branson and David James - woolly-jumpered millionaire meets desiccated calculating machine.

So much has been said and written about Branson since he founded Virgin in 1969 and began his meteoric rise to fame that the phrase legend in his own lifetime barely seems adequate.

Yet what the tumult of press coverage has failed to lay bare is quite how a man with such a penchant for self-publicity and self-belief in his own business acumen can at the same time be diffident to the point of being self-deprecating in private.

In any event, the enigma rolls on from bumptious schoolboy at Stowe, where Branson first cut his teeth on capitalism, to a showdown in the libel courts early next year with Lord King and British Airways over allegations of dirty business doings.

In between he has piloted his balloon and his ship across the Atlantic in record time, built up and sold off a record empire and established Virgin Atlantic as a well-respected, if small, international scheduled airline.

David James, chairman of Dan Air's holding company, Davies & Newman, is a different kettle of fish entirely - some would say a curious fish. A bachelor with homes in London and the country, he works 16 hours a day and does little else, not being a man for hobbies.

If James had an entry in Who's Who it would record that he is one of Britain's pre-eminent company doctors, someone whose skills lie not in creating businesses but in resuscitating them with the aid of a remorseless grasp of balance sheets and impeccable City connections.

After stints at Central & Sheerwood, North Sea Assets and Eagle Trust, he arrived at Dan-Air in October 1990 on a fee of pounds 30,000 a month for four days a week.

Beneath his balding pate is a business brain that is highly-tuned but also compartmentalised to the extent that yesterday it was dealing not with the crisis at Dan-Air but with another of the three companies in his present casebook.

As the two chairmen strive to keep Dan-Air aloft, their colleagues elsewhere in the aviation industry look on with a mixture of fascination and anticipation.

One of those with an interest in the outcome is Sir Colin Marshall, chairman-designate of British Airways, which will surely be there to pick up the pieces should Dan-Air fall out of the sky.

If Marshall were to be identified with any school of management it would be the one in which James, not Branson, was educated.

With his clipped mid-Atlantic tones and immense grasp of detail, Marshall brings a formidably efficient if somewhat soulless touch to the running of BA. He is affable, but not clubbable.

Respected rather than liked by his peers, Marshall, 58, takes the helm at BA at a time of unprecedented change in aviation with barriers across Europe due to come down next year and the airline industry slowly grouping into a handful of mega-carriers and international alliances.

His technician's style of management, learnt first in the world of car hire and honed in the retail sector, will be a far cry from that of Lord King, the present BA chairman.

King did not come from any mould unless it was that of a feudal baron, running BA as his personal fiefdom. For King opponents were there to be flattened, politicians there to be bent to his will and deals there to be brokered.

King will be gone from the chairmanship next July but not forgotten, for he will become BA's life president and, one suspects, still a force to be reckoned with.

Of equal interest at BA is the identity of the man who will assume Marshall's mantle of chief executive.

The two internal candidates are Robert Ayling, a former Whitehall mandarin who is just 45 and has been on the board as director of operations and marketing for less than a year, and Derek Stevens, 53, who joined the airline from TSB as chief financial officer.

Sir Michael Bishop, chairman of British Midland, the country's second-biggest scheduled airline, is like Branson a millionaire many times over. There, however, the similarity ends.

Once memorably described as 'a cute little brute' by a rival chairman, Bishop, 50, has turned British Midland into one of the UK's most successful independent carriers with a careful blend of conservatism and opportunism and a priceless asset - more take-off and land slots at Heathrow than any other airline except BA.

Bishop, also a bachelor, adores music - he is a leading backer of the D'Oyly Carte Opera - but abhors personal publicity, particularly of the kind that dwells upon his fortune. His 58 per cent stake in Airlines of Britain, British Midland's parent company, makes him worth an estimated pounds 96m.

Having established British Midland as BA's prime competitor on domestic trunk routes, Bishop is now concentrating on European expansion from its Heathrow base and is one of those circling over Dan-Air should it fail.

Britain's third-largest scheduled carrier, Air UK, is controlled by the Cayzer family and chaired by Neil Forster.

But the hands-on running of the business is the responsibility of Andrew Gray, its managing director since November 1990.

Gray's career path bears some resemblance to that of BA's Sir Colin Marshall, albeit on a lower plane. He joined Air UK from the car rental company Hertz, where he was marketing director for Europe.

Before that he had spent many years in the airline business, principally with BA.

Gray's task now is to consolidate Air UK's position as the biggest operator at Stansted, London's third airport, from which it serves 12 domestic and European destinations.

As chief executive of BAA, the owner of Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and four other airports, Sir John Egan has a vested interest in how well Air UK fares.

Of more immediate concern to him, however, must be the future of Dan-Air. It is one of Gatwick's biggest operators and the airport can ill afford to lose another customer so soon after Air Europe's demise.

Egan, the ultimate salesman and - like Lord King - a Thatcherite business hero, made his mark as chairman of the luxury car maker Jaguar, which he left in 1990 richer to the tune of pounds 1.5m following its sale to Ford.

Since arriving at BAA in September 1990 Egan has concentrated his efforts on transforming it into a more customer-driven and commercially-orientated business.

His detractors say this has had the unfortunate side-effect of making Heathrow seem more like a place to shop in than fly from.

Nevertheless, under Egan's guiding hand BAA saw off its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, by securing a new five-year price control agreement governing the charges it may levy on airlines, seen by many as over-generous to BAA.

The man at the CAA ultimately responsible for policing BAA and the airlines that together make up the British aviation industry is its chairman, Christopher Chataway, a former Olympic runner, 5,000 metres world record holder and Conservative government minister.

Between quitting politics in 1974 and taking over at the CAA in June last year, Chataway ran a cluster of companies ranging from a ski resort developer to Orion Royal Bank.

Now he is in hot seat. The rest of the British airline industry may be preparing to do battle over the body of Dan-Air. But it is Chataway who holds the airline's operator licence in his hand and hence the power of life and death.

View from City Road, page 27

(Photographs omitted)

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