UK: The Andrew Davidson interview - Barbara Cassani - The budget airline business is tough, as Go's chief ...

UK: The Andrew Davidson interview - Barbara Cassani - The budget airline business is tough, as Go's chief ... - The Andrew Davidson interview - Barbara Cassani - The budget airline business is tough, as Go's chief executive has discovered during the comp

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Andrew Davidson interview - Barbara Cassani - The budget airline business is tough, as Go's chief executive has discovered during the company's 'very hairy' first year. In that time, this sassy American has generated a lot of column inches, and is now tipped by some as a potential future head of British Airways.

Barbara Cassani gives me one of her pearly-toothed smiles: 'Next time you go to Florence, don't use Pisa, try Bologna, we'll do you a deal.'

'Well, I'm not sure. Don't get me wrong, Bologna's great but I don't know where the airport is in relation to the station, I don't know how long it takes to get to Florence from there ...'

'We know. Ninety minutes. Try it.'

'Maybe, but Pisa has got the station next door ...'

'No, no, no.'

You've got to hand it to her. It takes Barbara Cassani, chief executive of Go, the budget airline spawned by British Airways, about 10 minutes before she is trying to sell me some tickets. You're going to Copenhagen?

Why aren't you flying Go? You've been to Florence? Try us next time. Your wife wants to go to Bilbao? We've just started ...'

No problems guessing how she got the job heading up her airline, then.

She probably joked, jabbered and jawed herself into it. Aged 38, American-born, Boston-reared, vigorous, personal, persuasive, even occasionally sarcastic - not an adjective you associate with many US executives - Cassani is a breath of fresh air in the sometimes stuffy confines of British corporate leadership. She is also a shrewd choice to lead a new venture that needs publicity, particularly in an industry (sorry, should that be a country?) where female bosses are pretty hard to find.

'Ha!' she laughs, when I make the point. 'I would love to think that everyone in BA is that clever, but life doesn't work like that.'

Really? Well, call me a cynic, but budget airlines are all about personalities and profile and anyway, she knows it's what Go's rivals say. And there is a logic. EasyJet, Ryanair, Debonair, Virgin Express, Go - when the services are stripped to the very basics what's to differentiate them? Little bits here and there, but at the end of the day it's image.

And boy, does she have a lot of that. If there is anyone out there who hasn't heard of Cassani's arrival at the swish new terminal in Stansted, they must have had their executive lounge earplugs in for the past year.

So well-covered has her time at the top been that, if one didn't know better, one might suspect that shy, retiring BA boss Bob Ayling had learnt a trick or two from his arch-rival Richard Branson.

It was Ayling, clobbered recently for BA's dipping profits, who plucked the brashly eloquent Cassani out of BA general management and bankrolled her Go concept with an initial £25 million, and it's Ayling who currently sits as chairman of the fledgling airline, presumably to check that the money is wisely spent. At the time of writing, with Go having survived its first year, put 15 European destinations on the board and set its course for break-even before 2001, Ayling can at least argue that it all makes sound strategic sense. As a subsidiary that acts like an entrepreneurial independent, Go undercuts the minnows such as easyJet, which are already nibbling into BA's European income. It also demonstrates that BA is prepared to be bold and back young talent.

That's the PR front at least. The problem is in unpicking the private reality from the flannel. Is Go really a success? Is Cassani anything more than Ayling's stooge? And is it really fair for BA to put its sizeable clout behind Go (allegedly giving it cheaper aircraft maintenance costs and a host of other advantages) with the sole intention of kicking great holes in a few tiny rivals? EasyJet doesn't think so, and is taking BA to court about it all. By the time you read this, it may even have come before a judge.

But I have been ignoring Cassani, which is a cardinal sin these days, and in any case, hard to do. She likes tough questions. She frequently poses them to herself as a way of getting a point across. In fact, after a couple of hours in her presence, you could easily be convinced she is the queen of the rhetorical question.

I prod her about cross-subsidisation and cannibalisation.

'Do I think Go has affected BA's revenue by running on the same routes?' she responds. 'Yup. Do I think someone else would have done it if we hadn't?

Yup. Is there some spider-web plan for BA to pull off routes and us to take over? Nope.'

She gives me a look pitched halfway between sage and circumspect. The hands stop waving around - they move endlessly while she talks - and her nose bobs up in the air like a deer scenting trouble. Men, I note, looking through the cuttings, are always absolutely bowled over by her. Women are slightly more waspish. Some describe her as raucous. 'I think 'animated' is a better description,' laughs a colleague.

I'm not sure that Cassani ever answers my point about cross-subsidisation, though. Article 86 of the Treaty of Rome says that dominant players in a market should not operate at below the cost of production, which seems to many to be what BA is doing, launching Go against easyJet and the rest.

And BA has a bit of history when it comes to smothering baby rivals - ask Freddie Laker and Harry Goodman. Anyway, let the courts decide. Consumers don't care about article 86. They just want to fly to Copenhagen or Lisbon or Milan for less than £100 return. That will do nicely, thank you, and if a big carrier with a good safety record like BA happens to run it, so much the better.

So for economy flyers, Cassani is already something of a heroine as everyone agrees that, for all the brickbats from rivals, she has put together a pretty neat package with Go. From the rock-bottom fares right through to the handy little where-to-stay magazine, the on-board Costa coffee concession, and the excellent graphics and name (an expensive Wolff Olins job), the airline is a superior product that has put its rivals under the microscope and improved on their best points. No wonder they feel sore. No wonder Cassani is looking pretty pleased with herself.

We meet on a warm Wednesday morning at Go's second-floor office next to the new, Sir Norman Foster-designed terminal at Stansted. She insists on marching me round, showing me the office coffee bar, the sales room, the pilots' den - all the Go team are lumped together in one big family, she explains, there is no us and them. The cabin staff are lounging about in their grey trousers and blue T-shirts, the computer boffins are tinkering with the Go web site, it's all rather democratic and casual. Cassani, intriguingly, seems a bit distant from it all, looking very much officer class - dark skirt, matching jacket, big gold buttons - and a league above the chaotic bonhomie that is going on around her.

'We'll talk in here,' she says, gesturing toward her tiny glass-walled office at the centre of the operation.

Ah, no large corner room with a sweeping view of her planes?

'Nope, I like to be here,' she says, pointing out that it's the most accessible place to be, short of being outside in the open-plan. Being a boss, she explains, is all about balance. She wants people to feel they can come to her, but sometimes she needs to be able to shut the door too.

Of course, when you do shut the door, then people look across and say, ooh, what's going on, she must be giving someone a bollocking, hee hee ...

She has a high-pitched laugh and a range of silly voices which she uses readily, moving swiftly from serious points to boom-boom punchlines like a character in a sitcom. She jokes about the media's obsession with her being a woman - 'wow, it's something she does every day!' - about the hypocrisies of bossdom, about management and parenthood and baking (she's not being cute, it's the only kind of cooking that interests her).

All that, however, gives little indication of what she is like as a manager.

Others have been impressed by the breadth of what she has achieved. Go is very much her baby. She was sent off by BA to look at the idea of a budget airline and, after the lease prices for aircraft fell following the financial crisis in Asia, she was given the money to launch it. EasyJet complains that there is little originality in the concept - according to one executive, it is just a carbon copy slung together after BA's attempt to buy its rival was rejected - but then there was little originality in the easyJet concept either (Southwest Airlines in the US is its acknowledged inspiration), and organising Go could easily have been ballsed up.

But what an opportunity! How many executives dream of being unshackled from big company bureaucracy and allowed to set up their own outfits?

Ayling says that he had wanted to put Cassani in charge of something ever since he first met her on a BA management course when he was human resources director. 'She impressed me because of her energy, her strong intelligence, her motivational skills and her ambition,' he says. 'She thinks about things deeply but is very upfront and has no fear in telling you what's what. It's immensely refreshing.'

And the new launch has suited her to a T. Another colleague describes her as a thorough organiser with a 'Tom Peters-style' commitment to leading from the front and keeping things simple. Hence Go runs only 737s so passengers and crews can be swapped around quickly if anything jams up, it only advertises return prices that are readily available (as opposed to some budget airlines which advertise one-way prices that are virtually unobtainable), it cuts out the unnecessary and tries to do a few things well.

Cassani is also a devotee of the touchy-feely stuff that's easier to organise at smaller start-ups: every new employee gets a Go watch from Barbara, every member of staff (around 400 of them) receives a Barbara-signed birthday card, a different group gets dinner with Barbara at PizzaExpress every week. It's not a total blurring of the line between private and public - she rarely socialises with her staff other than on company occasions - but she does make herself accessible to employees, such as check-in staff and cabin crew, who don't usually get to meet the boss in other airlines.

What's not proven is whether she can tough it out under real pressure.

She can be impatient, and despite all the publicity, does not seem completely at ease with living her life in the spotlight.

And the budget airline industry is a bear pit, as she found out earlier this year when rivals told reporters, wrongly, that she had been pushed out by BA.

She gives a tight smile. 'It's been a very hairy first year. I never give the board nor anyone else the impression that it's been plain sailing.

Growing while keeping costs under control and stimulating revenue is really challenging.'

Spent all the £25 million yet?

'It would be telling to say how much I've spent, wouldn't it?' she teases.

'I've got plenty of money left, we're fine. Just so we're clear: the first year we lost the amount of money we thought, the second year we will lose a lot less, and the third year, if we're very lucky, we will make a bit. If not, we will break even.'

And if you don't?

'Then it won't be me you're talking to!'

She cackles with laughter. Those who have met her husband, Guy Davis, a British investment banker at Wasserstein Perella, say she has soaked up a neat line in limey irony from him. But being an American manager over here helps, she says, because while she can laugh with the Brits, she can also ignore all that subtle social stuff about accent and schools that we are all immersed in.

'I say what I mean, you hear what I say, that is the end of it.

I don't respond to non-verbals and I don't understand them. Why I get on with my husband is that, while he is part of the system, he doesn't really like it either. I say, judge me by my results.'

She gets her business drive from her father, she says, and her gift of the gab from her mum. She is the youngest child of three. Dad is a gregarious Italian-American salesman who trained as a bacteriologist before selling lab equipment and Mum is an 'unembarrassable' Irishwoman, the sort, says Cassani, who can talk to anyone. They moved around a lot with her father's work: Boston, San Francisco, the mid-West, New Hampshire. Between the age of 14 and 18, Cassani went to three different high schools - that's the sort of experience that teaches you how to fit in fast.

Hard work was the family motif. 'It was kind of like an immigrant background,' she says. 'Education was very important, and our parents told us we were responsible for our own future.' It was a classic, middle-class, suburban, pull-itself-up-by-its-bootstraps family. 'Work really hard, go to Ivy League school, make lots of money - it's much more of a pattern there than here.'

The difference was that Cassani worked a little bit harder than the rest. Her relationship with her father, who is still working at 72 and who, apparently, checks the Go web site every week, is 'really, really strong'.

'I learnt more about fairness hanging round his companies in the summer, watching him deal with non-performers in sales, understanding the politics, and how you remain true to something.' She also did the full round of bad student jobs: waitressing, cleaning, you name it, she says, she's done it. That puts a lot of things in perspective, she adds.

Keeping staff informed is one of her trademarks. 'I think there are a lot of really crumby managers out there and the way they manage is through fear and obfuscation,' says Cassani. 'That's dumb. If your role is leader then you should try to simplify things and help other people understand things when they are complicated.'

Much of that is probably a reaction to her time as a management consultant at Coopers & Lybrand, her first career job after leaving Princeton. She worked in the US and in London, but seems to have felt hemmed in. She didn't join BA till she was 27, answering an ad for a 'market challenger' at an unspecified service business. 'I just thought it would be fun for a couple of years. The reason I've stayed is that it's been really interesting.'

Coming from someone who became enmeshed in the BA-Virgin dirty tricks affair in the early '90s, albeit in a minor role, that could be classed an understatement. When I put it to her that, given the impact of the affair on BA's image, it is hardly surprising that rivals still mistrust the company's intentions, she doesn't flinch.

'I know what I did and I know what my intention was,' she says coolly.

To be exact, she ran a sales team in 1990 that analysed rivals' confidential booking information hacked off the reservation system, run by BA, that other airlines fed into. BA used the data to try and poach customers away from rivals. It is all fairly well documented and very much, as she makes clear, water under the bridge.

But did she know that what she as doing was, if not illegal, pretty unethical?

Her answer surprises me.

'The statistics were being gained completely illegally, yes, completely.' She hesitates for a while, then continues: 'You do the best you can and when you find out that something is being done improperly you stop it.'

But she didn't blow the whistle, did she?

'Because I didn't know. I mean, it is one of those situations where, um, I know what my behaviour was, and I know how it was portrayed by other people, and I can't speak for anyone else ...' Then, uncharacteristically, she clams up. She only gets her voice back with her favourite call-and-response technique.

'I was too junior. Do you think I had time to worry about what the chairman was doing? No. Did I really care at the time? No. I had a sales target to reach, lots of people to manage, and it was in the middle of the Gulf war. It was tough, you know.'

She moved from sales to sorting out BA's acquisition of Dan Air, then she returned to the US, working in BA's general management. It was only when she was asked to research the Go concept, and then launch it, that she returned to Britain with her family. One friend says that if Cassani hadn't got the Go job she would probably have left BA, as she was beginning to feel trapped by its structure. Cassani says she is just lucky in being in the right place at the right time, and also in having a very understanding husband with an even more understanding employer, happy for him to work either in London or New York.

They have two young children, and the 'world's best' nanny and housekeeper to hold it all together at their home in Barnes, south London. Given that she has to rise at 6am, and shoot up the North Circular to be at Stansted by 8am every morning, not getting back till 8pm at the earliest, it must be tough.

But I have to be careful here. What really annoys her? When people ask her how she can possibly cope with such a time-consuming job and two young kids ...

'Because you know what?' she asks, rhetorically, of course. 'The vast majority of women who work in this company do it every day. And you know what? They are just as busy and stressed and trying to find a balance between working and home life as I am.

I am just more on parade doing it, and I get a big salary so I can get really good childcare. In today's day and age, the reality of having a house and mortgage in the South East is that you both work!

People ask me that question and I look at them and think: What planet do you live on? Unless you are part of the country-club set most people are working people.'

Well, up to a point. I would bet that most top British bosses are men whose lives out of the office are still organised down to the last detail - socks, shirts, cheque book - by wives who don't work. Sure, that will change as Cassani's generation moves up, but people's interest in how she copes is understandable, even if it is beginning to get under her skin.

'Anyway, I think maybe I will have five or six careers in my life,' she says. Going back into BA - 'a supertanker compared to our speedboat' - will be difficult after launching and heading her own firm. And the fact that she has been tipped as a future BA chief executive will not make such a return any easier. Part of her would just like to see more of her kids and develop her passion for horses.

'I've ridden quite seriously, now I would like to spend a year or two just bringing a horse along, really focusing on that.' Maybe she will do something in the public sector, she doesn't know. What she fears, though, are the headlines when she does leave.

'The thing I would find quite sad is the likely reaction: SHE COULDN'T COPE! But who cares?' She wouldn't want to do this forever, OK?

She's not stroppy, just determined. If she reminds me of anything, it's the kind of flawed, sassily honest heroine championed by the current crop of American women detective writers - authors like Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. Hard-boiled, ambitious, constantly disappointed by society's expectations, striving to put their mistakes behind them and achieve something on their own terms. Later, a close friend tells me that the genre is one of Cassani's great passions.

CASSANI IN A MINUTE

1960: Born 22 July, Boston, USA

1978-84: Educated Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts and Princeton University, USA

1984: Management consultant, Coopers & Lybrand, Washington and London

1987: Various sales roles, BA, London

1993: General manager, BA, New York

1997: Chief executive, Go.

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