easyJet's new chief executive, Andrew Harrison, tells Martin Thompson how an MBA is still furthering his career

This grandson of a Liverpool docker will slide into the hot seat at the no-frills airline on 1 December at the relatively tender age of 48. "I think easyJet was most interested in the fact that I had delivered growth and improved profitability while I have been running RAC plc," says Harrison who has received much of the credit for the successful transformation of this motoring and services group offering everything from roadside recovery to home insurance.

It is more than 20 years since Harrison made the decision to take a year out to study for a full-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management. He already had an economics degree at Cambridge and a spell at the engineering group TI, initially as a management trainee, under his belt. "One of the motives for going to Cranfield was that, having been recruited to TI's special projects team, I was working alongside people who had MBAs and I quickly realised they were earning considerably more than me for doing the same job. Also, while I firmly believe that business is mostly about common sense, I realised that some of it is not, and has to be based on learning."

According to Harrison, his MBA year achieved several things: "Firstly, it was a very good investment. I left TI on £7,500 and, after graduating, I joined Bain and Company as a consultant on £28,000 a year. Secondly, it gave me the solid grounding I needed in finance and accounting, the basic language of business. There were some excellent teachers and the knowledge I acquired has stood me in very good stead. The qualification certainly opened doors for me at my next employer, Courtaulds Textiles.

"This was the company that really accelerated my career and I wouldn't have got in without an MBA. Finally, it gave me a good insight into areas such as marketing which meant that I was less likely to be bamboozled by the jargon that functional specialists tend to use. This in turn has helped build my confidence to tackle problems in those areas."

Harrison had moved to Courtaulds Textiles group in 1986 to help with business development after a short period of entrepreneurial activities which didn't work out. Within two years, he had been made finance director of the textile division.

"This was a huge business employing 32,000 people. I was only 31 at the time and I am not a trained accountant. It was a bold move on the company's part and they took a big risk with me. I ended up running the international fabrics and home furnishings part of the Courtaulds Textiles group which was about half the company." In 1996, he was headhunted by Lex Service, the biggest car retailer in the UK, where he became chief executive at the age of 39.

"As I recall, The Financial Times referred to me as 'alarmingly youthful'."

At Lex, Harrison began generating a lot of cash and making major operational improvements. He then spearheaded the management team which acquired the RAC in 1999 and the name of the newly combined company became RAC plc.

"Although RAC was a great brand, it had not been very profitable," he explains. "Having promised our shareholders we would boost profits by £30m, this purchase was a big, anxiety-provoking move for us. We actually did very well, improving customer service and employee satisfaction which in turn led to a tripling of the share price."

Harrison and his team at RAC sold the company to the giant Aviva insurance group for over £1bn, in May this year. "It had been an exciting journey and we delivered some good results."

Although his MBA was completed more than 20 years ago, Harrison stresses that there are residual benefits that still underpin his career. "When valuing our company at the time of the Aviva deal, I was able to call on the basic principles I had learnt at Cranfield."

He is wary, however, of advocating the MBA as an automatic way of delivering a career boost. "It is only one way of measuring someone's potential. Merit and past performance are the best yardsticks."

Does he promote the MBA as a good move for his junior executives? "Not actively. The push must come from them. If they show they are hungry for it, we would help them make it happen." He admits though to being hugely impressed by colleagues who elect to study for a part-time MBA on top of a full working week. "That shows real dedication, commitment and ambition.'

When RAC plc was sold, Aviva brought in its own management team. Harrison, who personally did well out of the deal, was looking for a new challenge. It was not long however before the phone rang and he was headhunted by easyJet. Although successful, the budget airline has been lagging behind its main competitor, Ryanair, in terms of its profitability.

"One of the attractions of the easyJet job for me is that the airline is a high growth company in a very competitive industry. There is a real sense of challenge and excitement. I feel I can make a difference for customers, shareholders and staff alike."

Harrison manages to take to the skies as a pilot twice a month. "So far, a couple of family members have had the courage to come up with me," he says.

But his real challenge now is to persuade members of the public to use easyJet's fast-growing services. When he takes over the controls in December, Harrison's formidable business skills, backed by his Cranfield MBA, will ensure that he gains height rapidly.