Carolyn McCall swaps GMG frying pan for easyJet fire

A brave move by Carolyn McCall, who's leaving Guardian Media Group to become the new CEO of easyJet...

Last Updated: 09 May 2013

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A new CEO for easyJet: the budget airline has poached Carolyn McCall from Guardian Media Group to become its new boss. The move seems to have taken the City by surprise, since McCall has no experience of the airline industry and – given its recent boardroom turmoil – the easyJet top job didn’t look like the most tempting of prospects. Frankly, we’re not completely surprised that McCall is getting out of the Guardian, which has problems of its own at the moment. But by plumping for the hot seat at easyJet instead, she’s not exactly taking the easy option…

McCall will replace Andy Harrison at some unspecified point later this year; Harrison himself will be checking in to Premier Inn owner Whitbread (also as CEO) after a year in which he and chairman Sir Colin Chandler fell out spectacularly with easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. The rift between the two sides – which was basically about the airline’s strategy during the downturn – got so bad at one point that Stelios refused to sign off the accounts. Although Chandler has since left, to be replaced by BT chairman Sir Mike Rake, and Harrison will soon follow, that may have scared off some potential candidates.

We can see why McCall may have fancied getting out of GMG (apart from the fact that easyJet's a bigger company, so this has to count as a step up). She’s made some high-profile changes during her tenure, notably the re-launch of the popular Guardian Unlimited website, the switch to the Berliner format, and the move to a new office. On the other hand, the group’s acquisition of media company Emap (financed by the partial sale of the family silver, the profitable Trader Media) has so far been a financial disaster; it's reportedly about to write off half the value of its £300m investment (although GMG told us today this was 'little more than an accounting technicality, a snapshot of a moment in time') - which would push the group into the red for the second successive financial year.

Critics also argue that the Guardian model just isn’t sustainable: the website gets millions of hits but isn’t really monetised, while the reliable cash cow that is public sector job ads will presumably stop mooing in the next few years. Then there’s the odd arrangement with the Scott Trust, the quasi-charity that runs GMG (check out MT's interview with McCall for more on this complex set-up).

The big objection to McCall’s appointment at easyJet (its shares went down on the news) seems to be her lack of direct experience – after all, aviation isn’t just your bog-standard generic service industry. But an easyJet ‘insider’ told the Times that her experience of a competitive consumer-facing industry and the transition to online, along with her lobbying prowess (and she certainly is likeable, persuasive and very well-connected) would all stand her in good stead – while Rake hailed her ‘strategic ability, operational capability and passion’.

Besides, maybe the industry needs to start looking further afield for leadership talent, given its recent woes. We’re minded of Michael O’Leary’s comment that the industry is run by ‘aerosexuals’ – i.e. aviation enthusiasts, rather than hard-nosed business people. At least nobody could accuse McCall of being an aerosexual.

In today's bulletin:

Budget 2010: Government tries to woo small business vote
Editor's blog: Sooner or later, the spending must cease
Carolyn McCall swaps GMG frying pan for easyJet fire
No panic for Sainsbury's despite sales slowdown
MT Special: David MacLeod on employee engagement

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