John King was the former chairman of British Airways and one of the leading figures in British business throughout the Thatcher years. He had a double, and doubly justified, reputation, as a highly effective businessman and as one of Margaret Thatcher's most devoted admirers. The feeling was mutual and she made him a peer in 1983 - surprisingly he had already been knighted in James Callaghan's last honours list.
Throughout his career he had a reputation as something of a bully. One typical City opinion referred to "a sheer aggression and drive to make things happen". Throughout a 60-year-long business career, his methods remained the same. "He's a good listener," said one friend, "but he comes to his own conclusions. He's not interested in persuasion" -although King himself was renowned for his persuasiveness. But he remained aggressive. One interviewer noted how he
greeted any question with either a blank beagle-like stare or an aggressive riposte designed to send the questioner off balance . . . His mood switches, like his behaviour, from the generous to the brutal and from the mischievous to the grave equally quickly.
The aggression provided a transparent cover for King's deep insecurity about himself and his early life. It also concealed an innate sensitivity and romantic gaucheness which emerged most obviously on the death of his first wife, Lorna, whom he had married when he was only 24, and who had provided much-needed support during his early years in business. Her death in 1969 shattered him, and when it emerged that he had spent £25,000 on a pearl necklace to put in his wife's coffin he was furious, if only because of this intrusion into his private grief. His second marriage, to the Hon Isabel Monckton, brought him both happiness and a position in the orbit of the Royal Family - his wife taught gardening to the Prince of Wales.
He retained a compulsive desire to conceal not only his humble origins and even his age - his first entries in Who's Who gave his correct age, but he soon pretended that he was a year younger and by the early 1980s had eliminated his age entirely. His desire to transform himself into a smart, squirearchical figure was greatly helped by his courage as a horseman. One of his oldest friends, Gordon White (Lord White) described him as "the bravest man I've ever seen in the hunting field". His horsemanship resulted in his becoming successively Master of two packs of hounds, first from 1949 the Badsworth and, for nearly a quarter of a century, from 1958, the immensely prestigious Belvoir.
The killing fields of Leicestershire were a far cry from King's origins. These were not that obscure, and certainly no disgrace, but in his quest for respectability he was obsessed with the need to conceal them (and perhaps most of all that he had had a profitable rather than a gallant war). "There are some things people don't need to know," he once said. "I hate rags-to-riches stories and I hate being asked personal questions." This apparent simplicity concealed a more complicated reality. In private, amongst a handful of really close friends, he showed that he did not take his social aspirations all that seriously.
John King was the son of a Protestant soldier and an Irish Catholic mother at a time when such mixed marriages were a rarity. Born in 1917, he was the second of four children, closer to his mother than to his father whom he described as "a very quiet thoughtful man, a bit distant". He spent most of his childhood in the little village of Dunsfold in the heart of the Surrey commuter belt, where his father was employed as postman after leaving the Army.
King was always getting into trouble at school, regularly beaten because of playing truant. His first job after he left was as a petrol-pump attendant but he soon got a more stable job in a local engineers making clamping stays for vacuum cleaners. Already he displayed two characteristics which never left him: courage and a sense of style. His fellow-workers would sometimes spend their lunchtimes jumping from a nearby railway bridge into the river - King, then known as "Jack", was the only one to dive rather than jump. And even when merely a humble metal basher, he was remembered as always having been a natty dresser, once coming to work in plus-fours.
His business career effectively started when he was employed by a notoriously tough local businessman, Arthur Sykes, as a car salesman, also involved in repossessing cars when HP payments were not met, a job in which he also became truly "Jack the lad". One friend remembers how
even as a secondhand car salesman he wore Savile Row suits. When Ford launched its V8 motor car he had a dolly bird along with him to make a splash. He put a monogram in gold leaf on the side of a Lancia car he borrowed from a friend who had gone into the services.
With the help of his boss - who also became his father-in law when he married Sykes's daughter Lorna - he soon set up his own businesses, including a taxi-cab firm and a Ford sub-agency previously owned by Sykes. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the businesses collapsed but King was soon back in business making parts for Vickers bombers. There, for the first but by no means the last time, he found himself in his element as an organiser and a persuader, getting the War Ministry to allow him to use precious American machine tools acquired through Lend-Lease.
At the end of the war he migrated to Canada, where he met Gordon White and James Hanson (later Lord Hanson) who became his lifelong friends and well-known for their, to put it mildly, active social life. It was probably Hanson who induced him to settle in South Yorkshire, where the Hanson family had extensive business interests.
There King made the biggest and boldest business gamble of his life. He set up a brand-new factory to produce ball bearings - "one of the most basic things you can make" as he put it - on a patch of derelict land near Ferrybridge, a small town in the middle of a declining coal-mining district. Although he brought in a handful of skilled engineers from the Midlands, most of the workers were recruited locally in what he described at the time as "a social experiment". The future ultra-Thatcherite was clearly influenced by the prevailing ethos of the times, the fact that, as he said much later, "the Beveridge report was kicking around and the idea of doing something appealed".
The Pollard Ball & Roller Bearing Company thrived, but in the late 1960s King was lucky when the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation organised a consolidation of the ball-bearing industry under British ownership. This enabled him to sell Pollard, which by then was barely profitable, for nearly £10m, of which King's own share amounted to £3m.
Newly rich and without a job for the first time in nearly three decades, King soon found a role as chairman of Dennis from 1970, makers of specialised vehicles like dustcarts and fire engines, returning it to profitability within a couple of years before he sold out.
He showed a similar ability as a sorter-out of businesses and a deal-maker in his chairmanship from 1970 of the boilermakers Babcock and Wilcox - his most obvious success was the sale of the group's important German subsidiary Deutsche Babcock in two tranches and he naturally played a leading part in the tangled reorganisation of Britain's nuclear-power industry. He remained chairman of Babcock for a long time after moving to BA, largely because all his life he remained above all an engineer.
By the late 1970s he had become thoroughly disillusioned with state interference in Britain's business environment and had expressed his opinions forcibly and publicly. Indeed, as Deputy Chairman of the National Economic Development Council, he had publicly denounced state involvement in industry in an early expression of what was later to become familiar as Thatcherite economic philosophy. So in 1981, when he was already 63, he was a natural choice to take over the chairmanship of British Airways with the apparently ludicrous aim of privatising the airline within a reasonable period. The idea seemed laughable given BA's dreadful record - it was then popularly known as Bloody Awful and was losing money at a rate of £140m a year. As was usual at the time, the labour relations situation was out of hand, with 17 different unions involved in negotiations.
Although the management had already taken the first steps to reduce staff numbers and to order advanced aircraft - like the Boeing 757 - King accelerated the recovery, largely by giving the existing management the confidence to implement changes they knew were desirable, but had thought impossible before his arrival. He saw clearly that BA was hampered not only by the absurd restrictions imposed by the Treasury, but also by the airline's confused role. As he once put it, in the previous 40 years BA and its predecessors had
been expected to maintain Commonwealth air links, support the British aircraft industry, further British foreign policy, earn hard currency, create employment . . . you can write your own list.
Not the least of King's accomplishments was to focus on the airline purely as a (potentially) profitable business.
In his early days at BA, King's style was unashamedly brutal. According to one witness, he
chaired board meetings as if they were trials and he the judge, jury and executioner. Sometimes King appeared not to be listening to a word that was said as his pale blue eyes peered unblinkingly at a board member he had placed in the dock.
Within two years, King had removed nine members of BA's board and replaced them with his own appointees. King felt that it
was imperative that we shake off the public-sector philosophy if we were to compete with the 160 or more airlines that were in our marketplace around the world. [BA] had become a self-serving organisation rather than reacting to the demands of the market-place.
His ruthlessness was greatly helped by Thatcher's intensifying humiliation of trade unions and was diluted with a great deal of financial generosity to the thousands of workers he made redundant. In the event, BA managed to reduce its workforce by 40 per cent without a major strike.
King knew he needed help to carry through his reforms. This he found in the shape of a first-class finance director, Gordon Dunlop, and Colin Marshall (now Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge), whose most notable achievement had been to build up the European business of Avis. To get Marshall, King had to battle with the Treasury which objected to his "excessive" salary (of £83,000). King and Marshall were never personal friends (indeed, there always seemed to be a certain tension between them), but they formed a close and highly effective partnership - they phoned each other every day at 7.30am prompt. Marshall concentrated on day-to-day business, above all marketing, while King dealt with the strategic and above all political issues (although it was King who made some decisive decisions like getting rid of eighty surplus aircraft and a million square feet of offices in central London).
His relationship with Marshall was unusual, because normally King tried to work with people with whom he felt personally comfortable - like the Saatchi brothers, who were responsible for some memorable BA advertisements.
In the 1980s, BA became a triumphant model of privatisation. In a relatively short time King and Marshall had turned BA on its head. As one supporter put it,
The management used to say "These are the routes, these are the aircraft, let's get some passengers." Now they are saying "There are the people who want to fly, let's organise the airline to cater for them."
In pursuit of their policy King and Marshall sold their staff hard on the idea of "putting people first", transforming staff attitudes to customers, so that the advertising slogan "the world's most popular airline" was not an empty boast.
From the start - and before Thatcher had dared think of so bold a move - King intended to privatise the airline. Unfortunately this took until 1987, because of a lingering legal dispute over accusations that deliberate and aggressive price-cutting by BA and other major carriers had caused the collapse of Sir Freddie Laker's pioneering attempts to provide cut-price transatlantic air services. But BA's turn-round was welcomed by the stock market and by the end of the decade had become - and remained - a reproach to the state-owned airlines elsewhere in Europe, most of which have now adopted King's policies. In some of his moods, King was able to downplay his achievement. "It's not so difficult to come in and rebuild something when you have none of the ties, none of the relationships."
Even after he had sorted out BA, King remained as pugnacious as ever, especially when dealing with the authorities and with rival airlines. He had a blazing row with the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority which had proposed that BA give up some of its routes to rivals like British Caledonian, describing the idea as a "vicious, violent and very unattractive attack".
Only King's political relationships, above all with Margaret Thatcher, enabled BA to increase its dominance of the British airline industry by buying first its biggest rival, British Caledonian, and then the much smaller Dan Air. Both acquisitions aroused considerable opposition, not only because they gave BA a quasi-monopoly position, above all at Heathrow, but also because BCal's employees in particular were quite rightly afraid that their pay and conditions would be worsened by working for BA (King even managed to impose different, less favourable, conditions for those working at Gatwick rather than Heathrow).
King's biggest problems came with two rivals, first Laker and then Richard Branson. When BA settled a libel action Branson had brought over another alleged case of dirty tricks, insiders felt that King had lost his aggression, that once he would have fought the case right through the courts. King also felt betrayed by the British government when BA failed to get the Heathrow slots formerly allotted to TWA and Pan-American. Although he denied the idea, many people felt that his resignation in early 1993 was the result of tiredness, and what he perceived to be these failures.
Many of his friends felt that he should have left earlier. He was always conscious of the relatively advanced age at which he had taken over at BA, indeed had ensured that when it was privatised directors did not have to retire at the normal age of 70. King was 75 when he handed over the chairmanship to Marshall and became president, a position changed to president emeritus in 1997. The fact that, since his retirement, BA has rather lost its way points to King's extraordinary achievement in transforming the airline and in providing a model for other nationalised industries in Britain - and for other airlines in Europe.
Nicholas FaithReuse content