The man who would be King: The new chairman of British Airways will find it hard to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor. Michael Harrison reports

Click to follow
SIR Colin Marshall has a tough act to follow. Today the one-time cadet purser will be named as British Airways' new chairman, stepping into the shoes of Lord King, who will assume the honorary title of life president.

Taking on the chairmanship of BA would be immensely challenging at any time. With his doughty predecessor hovering in the wings it will be doubly so for Sir Colin.

With some notable exceptions, the two worked well together at BA as chairman and chief executive. Lord King was the Thatcherite business hero, deal-maker and political manipulator, Sir Colin the supreme technician and man-manager of no fixed political abode, apparently happy to operate in his chairman's slipstream.

While the BA chairman would still be in his pyjamas perusing the newspapers, his chief executive would already have conducted a breakfast briefing somewhere and be on the way to the next meeting in a punishing schedule often lasting 14 hours a day.

Where Lord King would be garrulous and often quick-tempered, conducting BA's affairs like some latter-day feudal baron, Sir Colin was politeness personified. Where Lord King would silence opponents with a well-judged growl, Sir Colin, with his clipped mid-Atlantic tones, could sound as if he had just consumed a management textbook for lunch.

Lord King is clubbable, Sir Colin is not. The former rides to hounds and shoots, the latter relaxes by playing tennis at Queen's Club and skiing.

While Lord King relished the extraordinary power and influence that running a national flag- carrier brings, Sir Colin had the unfortunate knack of making the job sound about as exotic as that of an actuary.

The point of all these contrasts is that, under Sir Colin's leadership, BA is likely to become a different animal. Privately Sir Colin, 59, never made any secret of his desire to become chairman.

Now that the hour has arrived, how well will he adapt to flying solo?

A fellow director says: 'There was no serious examination of any outside candidates. Colin has always been regarded with the greatest respect and in the end there was never any question about his succeeding Lord King.'

To those outside BA, however, he is an unknown quantity. A senior executive at a rival airline says: 'I am sure Sir Colin is one of the best corporate managers we have produced but he is also one of the coldest fish you will come across. Apart from exchanging pleasantries I doubt whether many in the airline industry have had a in- depth conversation with him since he arrived at BA.'

Born in Edgware, Middlesex, Sir Colin skipped university and went straight from school into the Orient Steam Navigation Company in 1951 as a cadet purser.

Seven years later he married, came ashore, and began a career in the car hire industry that was to last 21 years. Taking up a chance job offer from a Hertz executive, he began work in 1958 as a management trainee with the US company in Chicago. By the time he left Hertz in 1964 to join the rival company Avis, he had risen to general manager for the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium.

His ascent through the ranks at Avis was similarly rapid. When the company was acquired by Norton Simon in 1977 he was chief executive and president of Avis, based in New York. He stayed with Norton Simon until 1979 when he joined the Sears retailing group as deputy chief executive. He joined BA in 1983.

Although lacking any direct experience of aviation, Sir Colin was well versed in the skills of financial control and managing a service business - attributes that were badly needed in the ailing state- owned airline John King had taken control of two years earlier.

The remarkable turnaround in BA's fortunes from a loss-making, inefficient state business into a highly profitable private- sector airline is generally attributed to Lord King's leadership.

But it was at least as much a result of the remorseless efforts of Sir Colin and BA's former finance director, Gordon Dunlop, to drive down costs. Together Lord King and Sir Colin piloted BA into the private sector in 1987 and engineered the takeover of British Caledonian a year later.

They did not always see eye to eye, however. In some quarters Sir Colin was blamed for BA's disastrous foray into high street retailing through the Four Corners venture - an initiative that ended in the fire sale of the chain to Thomas Cook.

Sir Colin's fortunes hit their nadir in 1989 when BA's link-up with United Airlines of the US fell through. It had been championed by Sir Colin but was viewed with little appetite by Lord King.

There followed an uneasy period. Supporters and close personal friends of Lord King, such as Hanson's Lord White, were drafted on to the board. Sir Michael Angus arrived as joint deputy chairman and at one point looked like the heir-apparent to Lord King.

Sir Colin survived, not least because of BA's results. Last year it achieved a pounds 285m profit while the rest of the airline industry was ringing up combined losses of more than dollars 2bn.

Sir Colin, who was knighted in 1987, gradually became more self- assured and assertive as Lord King disengaged from the day-to- day running of the airline.

His appointment to the chairmanship may create short-term difficulties. He is surrounded by King appointees save for the finance director, Derek Stevens, while the most obvious candidate for the vacant chief executive's job, the operations and marketing director, Robert Ayling, has been on the board for just seven months.

The appointment will also bring changes. An Americanophile who has spent many years working in the US, Sir Colin is certain to pursue vigorously a link with the US carrier USAir.

Sir Colin takes the controls at BA at a time of unparalleled change in the industry. He has to adapt the airline to a new era of free and unfettered competition within the European Community and also seek ways to extend its global reach.

He has a lot to prove. 'Colin has nothing like the political antennae or judgement of John King and he is largely untested for the role of chairman,' a competitor says.

But perhaps his biggest challenge is to emerge from the shadow of the present chairman. Lord King's mark on BA is so indelible that it is difficult to recall the name of the previous incumbent. Sir Colin must trust that the same does not apply to Lord King's successor.

(Photograph omitted)