UK: THE DAVIDSON INTERVIEW - ROBERT AYLING. - British Airways has not been a place for faint hearts in recent years. So how, Andrew Davidson asks, could anyone as modest and genial as 'call me Bob' Ayling have made it so quickly to the top of such a comb

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

British Airways has not been a place for faint hearts in recent years. So how, Andrew Davidson asks, could anyone as modest and genial as 'call me Bob' Ayling have made it so quickly to the top of such a combative organisation?

Robert Ayling, the £508,000-a-year group managing director of British Airways, the extremely successful £7 billion-turnover airline, is describing to me the iniquities of modern interior decoration. We are standing by the sofa in his sixth-floor office overlooking London's very posh Berkeley Square.

'So they showed me the estimate for what they wanted to do, and I said "What! Why can't you just re-cover the suite from the old office?"' Ayling, the boyishly charming former solicitor and ex-civil servant who has risen rapidly to the top at BA, bends to flick back the cover on the sofa, revealing a rather nice chintz underneath. 'Re-cover?' He feigns the decorator's look of startled surprise. 'It's like they'd never heard of the word. So that's what we did.' What's more, he adds, he got his own shelves from Ikea.

Ikea? The boss of one of Britain's best-known blue-chip multinationals gets his Mayfair office shelves from Ikea? I feel an advert coming on, but you have to hand it to him: why not? The result is that parts of his office in central London (he has another at BA's headquarters near Heathrow) have a strangely homely feel to them - the squashy sofas, the startlingly coloured kilim, the bookshelves, the nice prints - and then at the other end there's the meeting table and the largely empty desk sideways on to the window.

It is a bit of a hotch-potch and decidedly modest, rather like the man himself, you fancy. Ayling seems genuinely amused at my surprise that he still lives in Stockwell, too, generally considered one of London's more down-at-heel neighbourhoods. He and his wife Julia, who is a painter, have lived there for 23 years, he says, and he has little intention of moving to Knightsbridge just because he is boss of BA and earning a packet. And you think: hmm, what a sensible, down-to-earth fellow.

Or maybe I have been conned. There is a school of thought which argues that no one as genial as 'Call me Bob' Ayling could ever have made it as far as he has without a tough streak. For a start, in former years, BA, led by the combative Lord King and the rather more aloof Sir Colin Marshall, was not a place for faint hearts.

And it was Ayling, remember, who, as head of marketing and operations, stood at the centre of the BA-Virgin 'dirty-tricks' row three summers ago, and who steadfastly refused to resign as allegations of BA's involvement in bugging, rubbish-stealing, computer-hacking, press-smearing and passenger-poaching flew round the industry. It was also Ayling who Richard Branson - after having had to sit through hours of pedantic, unyielding negotiation with him, trying to sort out the whole fiasco - memorably described as being like a 'headmaster from a Dickensian boys' school'.

So will the real Robert Ayling stand up? In fact, outside the Virgin camp, he appears to have a large and growing fan club, all of whom argue that 'dirty tricks' are not his style. 'He is simply too nice a chap to be involved in anything like that,' one baffled former colleague from the civil service told me. So let that be an end to it for now.

It has been two-and-a-half years since Lord King stepped down as chairman and Sir Colin Marshall moved up, leaving Ayling with the role of managing director at BA. Charged with the day-to-day running of the company - Marshall concentrates on strategy, overseas investments and external relations - Ayling has emerged as a very good manager indeed. He has had a mountain to climb to rebuild the company's reputation after the Virgin debacle, both internally and externally, yet he hasn't backed away from implementing a rigorous cost-cutting exercise that has been reflected in BA's recent sparkling financial results: record pre-tax profits of £452 million for 1994-95 (before a provision against its investment in USAir, the long-suffering American airline), with another leap to £570 million forecast by analysts this year. For Ayling, the figures are the perfect riposte to those critics who complained that he wasn't up to it. They had argued that as he had only worked in business for eight years, and much of that as legal adviser at BA, he was obviously too inexperienced and too cautious to run Britain's biggest airline. How wrong can you be.

So when we meet, Ayling, who aptly enough cites hill-walking as his main hobby, is in confident mood. He is a tall man, lean, looking younger than his 49 years and sporting a thick mop of Portillo-esque hair that fringes down almost to his eyes. As we talk he constantly runs his fingers through it, pausing - ruffle, ruffle - to consider the correct answer to each question, often with a typical lawyer's precision. But the hair and the quizzical good looks - his press office giggle as they tell me he was voted 'fourth most fanci-able businessman' or something like that in a magazine survey which they can't quite put their hands on - are also matched by a kind of sardonic distance, as if he is constantly looking at what's going on with some 56e surprise. When I ask him, probably rather rudely, if he's ever taken aback at how fast he has moved up the corporate ladder, he answers bluntly 'yes', but then adds that he doesn't spend his life thinking about it.

He does admit, though, that he has had to change his style to survive, watching what he says and being conscious of appearances. As a lawyer, he points out, people come to you for advice, you talk to them as peers, indulge in a little competitive banter. In management, it's different. 'Whether you like it or not, there is a hierarchy and it takes some coming to terms with. It is very easy for people to misunderstand what might be a perfectly normal bit of banter in a professional environment.' So is BA too hierarchical? 'Yes,' he says, 'it's more hierarchical than I remember the civil service being and certainly more than some of the better managed British companies of today.' He wants to change that and at the same time, he adds, to give his managers a greater sense of professionalism about their work. He also wants to boost BA's caring side. Its image, he says, is too masculine. Too masculine, more professionalism, less hierarchy? How it will be achieved he doesn't say.

The difficulty for outsiders is that it has always been very hard to get a clear snapshot of BA and the BA style. Yes, it seems immensely efficient and profitable in an industry where everyone else of similar size seems to be losing millions, but there are contradictions. For all its reputation as an aggressively ruthless competitor which has in the past been able to sell its way out of any difficulties, the reality is that, compared to other airlines, BA is still remarkably bound in by a rigid set of union agreements and, according to competitors, carries a far larger workforce than it needs.

At the same time it is also rather forward-thinking in its espousal of equal opportunities policies, its commitment to training, its Leadership 2000 management programme, and so forth. Add to that its reputation for actually having quite a mixed bag of managers - some of them excellent, some not so good - and Ayling's views have a certain piquancy. But of course he knows no other companies.

So how has he carved out these opinions? He learns quickly, it appears. Many in the business have depicted him as Marshall's protege - 'the trusty lieutenant' as one put it - but those in the City who have dealt with both men say it is interesting how in meetings Marshall now defers to Ayling's superior knowledge of technical detail. It is also widely held that Ayling is a far better communicator than either King or Marshall, a point made with some relief by analysts who remember the days when King and Marshall appeared to be working to separate agendas. It cuts both ways, though. According to one City fan, Ayling has been so sharp in his first couple of years that some analysts feel a bit threatened, as he always seems to be about five jumps ahead of them.

Ayling acknowledges it would be impossible for him not to have been influenced by Marshall, having worked with him for 10 years, but agrees that they are different personalities. How? 'Oh, it's difficult for me to comment on this but I think, when there is a complex issue, for example, I would be quite happy to work through a meeting to try and figure out what the best way of resolving it is. Colin on the other hand has a very accurate and perceptive mind and very often sees straight through to an answer and will do it without needing a great meeting.' So you're more of a consensus manager? Ayling bridles.'Not at all, I'm just as happy to impose my will if I see that something needs to be done, but maybe it's just my background.' Working through meetings, he points out, is the civil-service method. Marshall is simply better at seeing the way through to things than he is, he says. Disarming modesty, of course, has been one of the noted traits in Ayling's rapid career climb. 'The thing about Bob,' says one former colleague, 'is that he has never been aggressively ambitious, just effectively ambitious ...'

Anyone seeking to pin down Ayling's motivation might do well to look at his childhood. He was born the son of a grocer in London's Battersea, where his parents ran Wade's Stores, a shop his grandfather had bought on St John's Hill. Post-war, Ayling and his sister helped out, stocking the shelves, serving behind the counter. 'It was a happy childhood on the whole, not untypical post-war,' says Ayling. 'There was quite a sense of deprivation around, not a great amount of money to spare.' Even so, he was privately educated until his father had to close the business. Then things took a turn for the worse. He was pulled out of school before his 16th birthday, when his parents moved to a rented windmill in Sussex, living off the small amount of capital left, all of them looking for work, spending most of the money on coal to heat the building through a long, cold winter. 'There was not much solace. I can remember it vividly,' he says now.

It is odd, though, I point out, how many of the business world's high achievers have watched their parents go through similar financial crises in their youth. 'Really?' he says. 'It must have an effect, I suppose. I don't know if it makes you work harder, but what it does do is create a requirement for some sort of financial security. The motivation is that it shouldn't have happened to them and it isn't going to happen to me.' He always wanted to be a lawyer, fascinated by 'how things work as they do'. Eventually he was articled to a West End solicitor who was a friend of his parents. From there, ambitious for more experience, he moved to a new firm in the City, specialising in shipping and transport law, a fast-growing sector. By the age of 24 he was an equity partner, and by the age of 27 he was looking for fresh challenges. It was 1973, and Ayling was shrewd enough to spot that the next big thing would be European Community law. The only place you could practise that in those days was in Whitehall, so he talked his way into the civil-service selection process. Months later, despite the fact that he had never been to university, he was accepted.

Strange, surely, to throw in a thriving career as a solicitor for lower-paid work at the Department of Trade? No, he says, he was genuinely interested in Europe and felt there was the potential to establish a thriving practice in the field. So the aim was to gain experience in the public sector and then profit from it in the private? Er, yes, he says, looking rather sheepish, but he also liked the hours. The late starts meant he could help with the school run in the morning (he has three children). In fact he stayed for 11 years, 58e working for Labour and Conservative governments and swiftly establishing a reputation as one of the few lawyers in Whitehall who didn't tell ministers what they couldn't do, but what they could.

When Sir John Nott came in as trade secretary and announced he wanted to privatise the then-state-owned British Airways, it was Ayling who was sent to see him. 'He was just a young junior legal adviser then,' remembers Nott now, 'but I was impressed by him and liked him. The thing about lawyers is that they can be extraordinarily legalistic and slow and pedantic. Ayling wasn't.' And Lord Tebbit, who was trade secretary between 1983 and 1985, describes Ayling as the best lawyer he ever met in civil service, simply because of his clarity of mind and his good commercial instincts.

And so, in that curious way business often works, Nott brought in John King to whip BA into shape for privatisation, King brought in Marshall and the pair of them, impressed by the work Ayling had done, eventually lured Nott and Tebbit's young lawyer in as legal adviser at BA. In fact, the initial approach actually came from another solicitor who suggested to Ayling that he 'might want to talk to BA'. He had been primed. Ayling, who had been looking around to leave the civil service, jumped at the chance.

He arrived pre-privatisation to find the company in some turmoil, and his own appointment coming under criticism for his apparent willingness to cash in on his government work. Ayling now dismisses it. 'I think it's pretty unreasonable. To say you are cashing in on being in Whitehall, you might as well say it's wrong to take advantage of any past experience.' Others in the industry say it was one of BA's shrewdest appointments, for by then Ayling was an expert on international transport law, American anti-trust legislation and a whole host of other things that impinge on the company's global business. The moment when eyes started widening was when he made the jump from human resources to marketing and operations, a move made possible after Sears poached Liam Strong, the incumbent executive and the man tipped to succeed Marshall in the top slot.

And Ayling walked slap-bang into the Virgin row. It is not the brief of this article to unpick the who-did-what-to-whom over the affair, which still rumbles on. In April this year BA paid an out-of-court settlement of £265,000 to Richard Branson's airline. An anti-trust case in America is still pending. Ayling says he doesn't know whether it will ever go to court. 'All I know,' he says, 'is that from what I have seen there is no basis on which it can be said there is any liability.' Does he acknowledge, though, that BA acted badly? He pauses and chooses his words carefully. 'You would be a very odd person if you didn't think what happened would have been best avoided from the point of view of my company and perhaps for all concerned, and there were certainly events, a small number of events, which happened within BA which I regret, and which the board has apologised for. But the events that happened did not, so far as I am aware, involve any criminal conduct, and the only civil case which was brought was the one in England which was resolved with the payment of a relatively small sum of money, at least compared with the large sums that were claimed.' Some in the industry say that the whole affair has become ridiculously over-egged and argue that Branson's real beef should have been with the Government for setting BA up in such a powerful position post-privatisation. Others point to the fact that when the settlement was eventually made in April, Branson was unavailable for comment, an unusual occurrence into which you could read quite a lot.

For the future, Ayling says that he will concen-trate on making BA a more efficient organisa-tion. Like everyone else, he expects to see fewer airlines around - accumulated losses in the industry for the last four years eliminate all recorded profits, he adds casually - which would, you might think, put BA in a very strong position. But the others that survive are going to get better and better too, he points out. BA is likely to increase its stakes in foreign airlines to add to the 25% of USAir and Qantas it already holds and its investments in TAT, the French carrier, and Deutsche BA, but if I am looking for any more detail than that, he says, I am going to be disapointed.

Does he expect to become chairman eventually? 'Oh good heavens,' he says, caught on the hop and pushing his hands through his hair again in startled exasperation. 'I think I am a bit young to think of being chairman of anything. My ambition is to manage BA for the next few years, improve its reputation still further and maintain our financial performance.' Would he ever work for another company? 'I've never thought about it,' he says.

Anything else I should have asked him? Well, he says, looking at a list of topic areas I had given his press officer the day before, you haven't asked me yet who my heroes are? OK, who are they? Michael Kerr, he says, who was in his teens when his family came to this country from Germany in the '30s and who went on to become a silk and judge at the Court of Appeal - his sister Judith is author of the Mog the Cat children's book series - and Neville Cardus, the Guardian journalist. Why Cardus? Because, says Ayling, he managed to combine journalism with his passions for music and cricket on his own terms.

And that was that, time up, two hours gone. It was, however, to prove a long goodbye. The next day a package arrived for me at the Management Today offices, dropped off by Ayling's driver. It was a selection of Judith Kerr books. What? 'Nothing to do with me,' explains a weary BA press officer. 'Bob's just like that, he does things off his own bat.' Ayling had, it seems, been amazed that neither I nor my children had ever read the Mog books, or the Kerr family biography, The Day Hitler Stole My Pink Rabbit, and was quite happy to overstep the normal interviewer-interviewee protocol by sending them over. Very kind. Others, of course, will never be impressed by any amount of warm friendliness now emanating from the BA head office.

'I'd be careful if I were you,' ribbed a fellow journalist who saw the package. 'It could be another BA dirty trick ...' Which just goes to show, with British Airways still suffering a slightly dented reputation, the very nice Bob Ayling may yet have a little bit of the mountain left to climb.

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