Sir John Egan, former darling of the UK press, talks to Andrew Davidson about his latest role.
1939: Born Coventry, educated at Bablake School
1958-61: Imperial College, London University - BSc Petroleum
1962-66: Shell International - petroleum engineer
1966-68: London Business School - MSc Business Studies
1968-71: General Motors - general manager of AC Delco
1971-76: British Leyland - managing director of Unipart;
director of Leyland Cars
1976-80: Massey-Ferguson Corporate Parts - director
1980-90: Jaguar Cars Ltd - chairman; chairman and chief executive
August 1984; chief executive and managing director of
Jaguar plc after flotation, and subsequently chairman
and chief executive
1990: Chief executive of BAA plc
Sir John Egan, framed by a vast panoramic view of Victoria station behind him, is scrabbling round his desk for a bit of marketing. "Ah," says the former motor industry boss who is now running Britain's biggest airports, "here it is," and comes back with a thick bound file of figures.
The figures are the month-by-month responses of consumers using airport facilities. They are asked questions about quality of service, standards of cleanliness and the like. Consumer satisfaction is averaged to a score from one to five. Low scores are then acted on. Sir John, now coming to the end of his first year in charge of BAA, seems rather pleased with it all.
A compact man with a little paunch and a determined blob of a nose, he has been rather subdued until this point. Both he and his corporate relations director, Peter Sanguinetti, who dutifully takes notes throughout the interview, had stressed initially that we must concentrate on BAA. Sir John then spends most of the 90 minutes talking about Jaguar, for which he apologises at the end. But he does not really get excited until he gets his tables out. They are definitely his baby.
And that is the Egan conundrum. The manufacturing boss who rescued and lost Jaguar Cars is now more excited by marketing than by making things. No, he is not sitting on his Elba waiting for the call back. BAA has it all for him: the retailing, the property, the construction projects. To think that he yearns to go back to the car industry is to misunderstand him. The question is whether you believe him or not.
The Egan myth is one of the most tantalising in industry. Along with Sir Michael Edwardes, he remains one of the best-remembered car bosses in Britain. He headed Jaguar for 10 years, from 1980 to 1990. To the public he was the man responsible for making Jaguar great again, if only for three or four years in the 1980s. And my, how that greatness was trumpeted.
At a time when Britain needed industrial heroes, Sir John stepped forward. For years he was the darling of the press. "The man who turned round Jaguar" (Financial Times 1983); "How we put Jag back in top gear" (self-penned, News of The World, 1984); "My way - The man who saved Jaguar" (Daily Mirror, 1986). And so on.
Sir John, jacket off and leaning back, smiles at the memory. Personal PR, some say acidly, was always his favoured management tool. He brushes it aside. "Yes, we had a PR policy; it was because we didn't have enough money to advertise, so the cheapest way was to get the message across through PR. We would ask anyone who would come to listen to our story."
It is a dangerous game to play, as when things do go wrong those same commentators who eulogised are likely to criticise with added venom. In fact the collapse of Jaguar's profits at the end of the 1980s was met with puzzled silence. Jaguar's success, it turned out, had been something of an illusion. It had prospered on the back of favourable exchange rates and some smart marketing. So the bubble burst and Jaguar was bought by Ford. When Sir John exited stage right to work with his old friend Sir Norman Payne at BAA, few were surprised at the outcome, only the manner of it all. Now the venom is beginning to sting.
"He was an excellent marketer but somewhat power-mad," says one analyst. The trouble was that, for all the PR, Sir John never addressed the long-term problems of quality and inefficiency at Jaguar. "And you can't run a company on a PR base alone."