Obituary: Sir Roy Watts

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The Independent Online
Roy Watts, businessman; born 17 August 1925; Chief Executive, British European Airways 1972-74; Chief Executive, European Division, British Airways 1974-77, Director, Commercial Operations 1977, Director, Finance and Planning 1978-79, Chief Executive 1979-82, Joint Deputy Chairman 1980-83, Group Managing Director 1982-83; CBE 1978; Chairman, Thames Water Authority 1983-89, Thames Water plc 1989-93; Chairman, WaterAid 1984-88; Kt 1992; married 1951 Jean Rosaline (one son, two daughters); died London c27 April 1993.

ROY WATTS was a remarkable manager. Whether as Chief Executive of British Airways or Chairman of Thames Water, he showed foresight, energy and outstanding powers of leadership. He was also a warm-hearted friend.

But it was for his love of the game of cricket that many will remember him. He played his first game of league cricket for Bentley Colliery on his 15th birthday and later had a trial for Yorkshire while still a teenager. He told friends that he would have liked to have played for Yorkshire and England - in that order.

Watts's airline career, in which he rose from junior manager to the Chief Executive's office, began in 1955 when he joined British European Airways as Head of the Systems Study Division. He became Fleet Planning Manager in 1961, after a spell in the front line as Area Manager Sweden and Finland, based in Stockholm. In 1967 he returned to operations as Regional General Manager Northern and Eastern Europe. Three years later he was appointed Director of the BAC 1-11 Division. He succeeded Kenneth Wilkinson as Chief Executive of BEA in 1972. It was here, during the complex discussion that marked the merger of BEA with BOAC to form British Airways in 1972, that he became renowned for his view that 'Autonomy is what you take, not what you are given.'

After the merger, he continued to head the European Division of British Airways but he returned to the planning role in 1977 as Director of Finance and Planning. He said recently that he had reduced operating costs by pounds 300m a year but wished he had started sooner on cost cutting.

In 1979, he was appointed Chief Executive and was briefly Deputy Chairman in 1983. Much of the strategy conceived at this time endured after he left the airline and he and Lord King of Wartnaby remained firm friends. He wrote 'European Air Transport up to the Year 2000' for the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aeronautical Journal in 1978.

It was with his friend Charles Stuart that he created the 'Shuttle' concept for domestic flights for the airline's routes between London, Edinburgh and Belfast - a system that is still working successfully today. Watts's view was that what the market needed was a service in which, for once, the aeroplane waited upon the customer. He was highly regarded in the airline and colleagues remember that he always travelled with a squash racket, such was his enthusiasm for the sport. When on a visit to Moscow he found the only squash court that existed there - at the Indian Embassy.

In 1983 he bounded into the cost-cutting role at the then Thames Water Authority. His friends teased him that he had been misled by the initials 'TWA', thinking it was another airline. He was appointed Chairman and cut the board of 62 members to a workable size. When he arrived he was asked if he wanted to act like a Lord Mayor or like a chairman in industry. The answer was not difficult. He brought modern business principles to the running of a public body and introduced a span-of-control rule that was known as '1 in 5, not 1 in 6'; this meant the company moved to a flatter management structure and no one had a deputy, resulting in a 20-per-cent cut in operating costs.

Watts's pride in the London Water Ring Main was legion. It was started in 1985 and he saw the end of tunnelling in February, a year ahead of schedule. Watts brought the concept of customer service to Thames Water and insisted that everyone worked for the customer rather than for a division or a barony, as he called them. He adopted the phrase 'Put the Customer First'.

In the approach to the stock market flotation in 1989, he was regarded as the father of water privatisation. But there had been battles along the way. The first of these was in 1985 when he publicly challenged the government on increasing customer prices unnecessarily to meet the required levels of debt repayments. As that skirmish ended, Ian Gow, the Minister of State at the Treasury, committed the Government to exploring 'a measure of privatisation' in the water industry.

In 1987 Watts crossed swords with Nicholas Ridley, the Secretary of State for the Environment, when he fought to retain within the water companies the function of what is now the National Rivers Authority. He was appointed Chairman of Thames Water plc on its formation in September 1989 and continued to watch over the rapid developments in the following four years.

But the airline industry remained close to his heart. He joined with Charles Stuart in 1983 to become Deputy Chairman of Brymon Airways and early in 1983 the two conceived Air Bristol which planned controversially to operate from the BAe airfield at Filton in Bristol.

He was chairman of the water industry charity WaterAid from 1984 to 1988 and chairman of a number of companies: Lowndes Lambert Group from 1988 to 1992, seeing through its stock market flotation; Armstrong Equipment plc for the same period; and at the time of his death Chairman of the Frank Graham Group and of International Business Communications. He lectured regularly to the British Institute of Management and believed in formal management training as well as learning from 'life's


Although a public figure and a doughty fighter, he was an intensely private and shy person and after any period of business activity he would walk with his wife, Jean, in the Chilterns or in Scotland. His early passion for cricket endured and as an MCC member he was often at Lord's for the key games. He regarded himself as a Geoffrey Boycott supporter.

(Photograph omitted)