UK: Michael Bishop's obsession. (3 of 4)

UK: Michael Bishop's obsession. (3 of 4) - Bishop finds himself in an odd position over BA. Not only does he not like whingeing, but he always was, and remains, a convinced Thatcherite and he believes that privatisation - including the privatisation of t

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Bishop finds himself in an odd position over BA. Not only does he not like whingeing, but he always was, and remains, a convinced Thatcherite and he believes that privatisation - including the privatisation of the flag-carrying airline - was the right thing to do. He also thinks, however, that the Government has fundamentally misunderstood one crucial fact about privatisation.

"Everyone thought that privatisation and competition were the same thing, that if you were able to achieve privatisation of a nationalised corporation you automatically created the latter, competition. The people who knew about it, of course - the Treasury and a few others who had worked it out for themselves - realised that what would actually happen was that very large lumps of industry would come into the private sector of a size which would make it extremely difficult for effective competition to be created.

In any industry market share is a pretty key thing. If you are going to have real competition you must have players of relatively equal strength. If you bring in a player of overwhelming size against minnows, which is what we were in 1981 and 1982, you have got your hands tied behind your back because you have not got a level playing field of competition. There should now, Bishop thinks, be a second phase of privatisation to introduce the right level of competition. "And that may actually mean intervention, which is anathema to Conservative policy, but you might have to create the right environment for people to be able to compete on an equal basis."

Bishop admires Lord King and Sir Colin Marshall for turning BA round "but it's been achieved at the expense of competition and marginalising people who try to compete with them". There is an intense business rivalry between King and Bishop, but he scrupulously avoids bad-mouthing his opponent. "Any corporate hostility between BA and British Midland is just that," he says. "There's not a hint of any personal animosity, in fact quite the contrary."

If indeed Lord King does look with a benevolent eye on Bishop, it is probably because they both worked their way up from the bottom in business, rather than using the old boy network. Bishop went to a good public school, Mill Hill, but it did not exactly give him a flying start in life. He was an academic under-achiever and did not enjoy the place though it did, he says, undoubtedly breed in him a strain of single-mindedness which has been invaluable in his career.

"For all the criticisms that you hear about an education that includes boarding schools," he says, "I do think that that element of being left to determine for yourself what your future is - you have to create your own environment and your own niche in a society which is hostile and make your own friends without any support from family - is actually an important element of later independence."

He is still very independent, but not isolated. A psychologist might find it interesting that a man who prizes independence so much has had such a long and very fruitful close working relationship with his partners, Wolfe and Balmforth.

"It's been a successful partnership," says Bishop. "It's unusual for three people to work together in harmony for 22 years. We're all totally different in every way which is the only reason it's been successful. If we'd been overlapping in personalities there'd have been terrible conflicts of ambition and competition with each other. The formula still works quite well after 22 years, but we're now 22 years older. I'm 49, John Wolfe is 53 and my other partner is 54, so we've matured in the partnership. It's a great thing that it works because not many people can say that."

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