UK: Michael Bishop's obsession. (1 of 4)

UK: Michael Bishop's obsession. (1 of 4) - Malcolm Brown talks to a down-to-earth airline independent.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Malcolm Brown talks to a down-to-earth airline independent.

"There are lots of reasons for being a hands-on manager. Michael Bishop's is more basic than most. He has a deep-seated fear that if he doesn't keep his eye firmly on the ball - in his case the highly successful independent airline British Midland - then fate (or something more down to earth, like a cut-throat competitor) will intervene and whip it away. He thinks that it is in the genes. His father, an Australian who settled in this country after World War I and built a vehicle-building and engineering business from scratch, was totally convinced that Sod's Law would get him if he let his gaze wander. He passed that conviction on to his son.

"I was always taught", he says "that the moment you did take your eye off the ball, started doing other things and not concentrating, you'd be down the spout. I still basically believe that."

It sounds rather a restricting philosophy, but it seems to work. After more than a quarter of a century at British Midland, for 22 years of which he has effectively been chief executive, Bishop is far and away the longest survivor in the independent airline business, which, as he points out, has "one of the highest suicide rates of all industries". Court Line, Laker, British Eagle, Air Europe "and dozens of small companies in between" have all nosedived. One of the reasons why he is still around, says Bishop, is that he knows his core business back to front and has not been tempted to stray out of it.

"It's horses for courses. Although people talk about diversification, the airline's success has actually come from not moving too far off a particular guideline. It's just getting better at doing the same thing. People often ignore that as being a bit boring."

Aviation has a very romantic image. Bishop, it has to be said, does not quite fit it. With his City suits, greying hair and grizzled toothbrush moustache he looks, as the newspaper Scotland on Sunday recently remarked, not so much like a high-flying aviator who will risk everything for glory but more like a flying chartered accountant.

It is not an image that he would necessarily disavow. Airline people fall into three categories, says Bishop: the intrepid aviators, the multimillionaires, and the "pros". The first group have a remarkable propensity to fly Icarus-like too close to the sun and come crashing down. "I don't say everybody fails," says Bishop, "but the pilot-turned-airline-operator is the most assured route to disaster financially."

The multimillionaires (he exempts Virgin's Richard Branson from his strictures) are too often just in it for the glamour and run the intrepid aviators a close second in the pratfall stakes. "They don't last too long either and somebody, in the meantime, usually takes a great deal of money off them." The third group, the down-to-earth professionals (among whom he counts himself), just get on with the job ... and survive.

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