Bid for glory

Leading London's 2012 Olympic tender is the latest challenge for Barbara Cassani, who proved herself as boss of airline Go. Why did she take it up, asks Rebecca Hoar.

by Rebecca Hoar
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Things are strangely quiet up on the 50th floor of London's Canary Wharf. Floor-to-ceiling windows shut out the roar of the planes on their approach to City airport, and there's no noise from the cars and trains 800 feet below. Although this is the site of London 2012, organisers of the UK's bid to host the Olympics, there are just a few desks pushed together in one corner of the room. A small group of employees work silently, heads down; it's all very subdued.

Into the middle of this walks Barbara Cassani, the bold Bostonian who made her name with BA and Go and who's now the bid's chairman. Starbucks coffee in hand, she wanders around the cluster of desks, talking to each employee in turn. It's micromanagement with a smile.

Cassani has always been passionate about her people, and watching her greet her staff, you can see why former employees at Go clubbed together to buy her an expensive Italian saddle as a goodbye present.

Hardly the sort of treatment that her one-time rival, Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, could expect from his galley slaves.

Yet for all her management skills, it's hard to work out what Cassani is doing here - a woman with pounds 9 million burning a hole in her pocket leading a bid with no guarantee of success. As the near-empty space on floor 50 testifies, London is still playing catch-up to rival bids from cities such as New York, Madrid, Paris and Rio, which are well staffed and fully backed. It's up to Cassani to get London up to speed, and fast.

After her achievements at Go, she could have taken her pick of top jobs in UK business. What persuaded her to take on the politicking and networking needed to persuade the 126 members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to vote for London? 'When you have a chance in a lifetime to do something, you do it,' she says, 'although my husband says: 'Oh, here we go. Another chance in a lifetime.''

Her first big chance came in 1997, when she was hand-picked by Bob Ayling to set up Go, BA's low-cost airline. After a rocky couple of years, in 2001 she headed a management buy-out that valued the company at pounds 110 million - a huge return on BA's pounds 25 million investment. A few months later, she fell victim to her own success when deadly rival easyJet bought the company for pounds 374 million. The sale made Cassani, as a shareholder in Go, a multi-millionaire. But she was furious, claiming the company had been sold out from under her by 3i, the venture capitalists.

It's a measure of how angry she was that even now, having written a book about the experience, she still wants to talk about it. 'I will never again create a business for someone else to sell away, ever. If I ever do create a business and have venture capitalists working with me they will never have control of the business,' she vows.

Venture capitalists may in turn feel that they'd prefer not to work with Cassani, who made no secret of her view that 3i should have hung on until Go was ready for a stock market flotation. Yet the UK market for IPOs was depressed then and remains so now, and there's no certainty that Go would have made more money by heading to market. Did Cassani, as easyJet boss Stelios claimed, let her emotions cloud her judgment?

It's not a good question to ask the woman once branded 'too enthusiastic' by a former boss at Coopers & Lybrand. 'The 3i people, they were all very nice people - it's nothing personal - but what I found so interesting was that they could cut their private personalities from their business decisions,' she says. 'And I don't believe you can. I believe passionately that who you are as a person, how you are trying to bring your children up, is how you behave in business. There's far too much putting a suit on and divorcing yourself from basic humanity.'

Cassani, 43, certainly wouldn't fit the mould of the classic FTSE-100 CEO. There is something engagingly Pollyanna-ish about her. As she talks, she waves her arms, puts on voices to impersonate cabin crew or passengers, drops in anecdotes, and laughs loudly at her own punchlines. At Go, she encouraged staff to suggest improvements to running the company. She sent a weekly message to all employees, detailing the latest Go triumphs and disasters. She became a regular guest on Go flights. 'I made a conscious decision to take whatever flak was going on any flight,' she says. 'Why wouldn't you do that, why wouldn't you stick yourself out there?'

Senior managers at some of Britain's less popular companies - Network Rail, Equitable Life - might think of a few reasons, but that's the point about Cassani - she seems to relish confronting her detractors head-on. Perhaps that is why employees at Go were so fond of her.

'I feel a lot of business people are on ego trips,' Cassani confides.

She preferred to 'humble herself' in front of employees, letting them know what mistakes she'd made. She encouraged them to take shares in the company and to act as owners of the business. 'No matter how good a management team you have, no matter how good your aircraft are, if you have people who don't care, frankly, the whole thing is OK but it's just not that powerful,' she says.

Cassani often referred to Go as her baby, so it was a hard blow when she lost the company to easyJet. After the sale, Cassani retreated to her home in Barnes to ride her horses and spend time with her husband and two children. 'That was one idea,' she says now. 'But life doesn't work quite that way.'

Instead, her husband took a call from Ken Livingstone. 'I came back home and my husband said: 'You won't believe who called.' So I said: 'Who?' And he said: 'The mayor.' And I said: 'Which mayor, what mayor, what are you talking about?'' The result was that in June this year, Cassani was named chairman of London's Oympic bid. The doubts voiced by the press were the same as those in her own head. 'I thought: oh dear, I'm American. I also read a lot of names that were in the running and thought: 'Oh, my goodness.' It's humbling to be chosen. And it is a huge personal sacrifice doing this job.'

The pounds 200,000 a year role involves a three-day week, but with so much ground to make up, Cassani expects to be taking the Tube from Barnes to Docklands far more often than that. The task will test her stamina and her skills. Although she is a good manager, adept at drawing people to her and enthusing them, the 2012 bid involves a different challenge. 'I have had to adjust my thinking a bit. It is not a business venture. Protocol is more important, understanding all of the different groups, where in a business environment you might say: forget it, move on.'

Cassani's detractors say she'll struggle to win round the staid burghers of the IOC, with their competing agendas and clubby approach to business.

She's been compared to the last woman to have won an Olympic bid - the forceful Gianna Angelopoulos, who persuaded the IOC to back Athens for the 2004 games. Angelopoulos is known for her political nous and contacts, whereas Cassani favours the straight approach. Mayor Livingstone, a man whose every sinew is political, will take some handling.

'I'm positive I could never be a politician,' she says. 'When I believe in something I'm very persuasive, but I don't believe in changing the truth.'

The IOC members are famously difficult to crack. Cassani will spend the next few months sussing out what makes each member tick, and appointing a negotiating team skilled at networking. She's on surer ground on the issue of why Brits should support London 2012. Getting people excited about the bid clearly motivates her. With the Olympics, it's about social and economic regeneration and 'bringing countries together,' she says. 'I'm a very idealistic person.'

But it will take more than high ideals to win the bid. The proposed Games site, the Lower Lea Valley in London's East End, remains undeveloped.

There is no stadium large enough to host several of the events, no suitable swimming pools, no accommodation for hundreds of sportspeople, and the public transport system is barely there. To say that the technical side of the bid requires work is an understatement.

On this, Cassani stands by what she learnt at Go. 'We never dissolved into self-doubt,' she says. 'We just have to stick to our course and remain very strong in our belief that what we are doing is right. I want to bring the winner mentality that we had at Go.'

It will take tireless campaigning, but that is where Cassani excels. Her mother has said that even when she's relaxed, she's exhausting to be around. When setting up Go, Cassani commuted on Concorde between London and New York every Friday night. A fellow passenger noted that the only person he had ever seen work so hard on Concorde was Margaret Thatcher.

Cassani claims she would like more balance in her life, but she seems happy with her present situation. 'I've reached a point in my life where if I'm not having a good time, I'm not going to do it,' she says. She encouraged employees at Go to adopt the same can-do attitude, telling them to cut up credit cards if they had debts and to change their lives if they weren't happy. 'My view is if you want to change it, change it. You're in charge of you. And I'm in charge of me.'

It's a positive approach. She'll need it in the fight ahead.

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