Just a few short weeks ago Bob Ayling was New Labour’s management
The model, it seemed, for a manager for the new millennium; a friend of
Tony Blair and BBC supremo John Birt, a man who knew that dogma and old
political dividing lines weren’t the way of the future.
John Prescott clinked champagne glasses with him last month as they
stood on the runway at Heathrow at BA’s unveiling of its pounds 60m
But things have become a lot more turbulent lately. A strike by BA staff
takes effect this week. Angry staff have complained about a macho
management and threats of the sack.
Commentators have been quick to point out the contradiction between
Ayling holding hands with New Labour and his iron-fisted approach to
industrial relations. Even The Daily Telegraph’s leader last week raised
questions about BA management’s handling of the strike threat, under the
heading ’Is BA Ayling’ it suggested Ayling had sowed ’confusion and a
loss of morale’.
This is unfair, say those who know him.
’He is not someone who is seeking conflict,’ says David Kershaw, a
partner at BA’s advertising agency M&C Saatchi. ’The idea of him
charging around like a great bully is not him. He is keen to do things
with the support of people in the company, but he has radical visions of
the future and it is about radical change.’
However, Ayling, 50, has established himself as a tough negotiator. As
head of marketing and operations during the ’dirty tricks’ affair in the
1980s, Ayling was in the front line of the battle with Virgin
Branson was no fan of Ayling, and in 1993 said of him, ’I have never had
to deal with anyone quite like him before and I hope I never have to
again. He reminds me of a headmaster from a Dickensian boys’
But Ayling rode out the controversy, resisted calls for his resignation
and committed his legal expertise and negotiating skills to furthering
Since his promotion to managing director in 1995 and chief executive a
year later, ’Call-me-Bob’ Ayling has become symbolic of the new friendly
face of the airline.
His admirers describe him as approachable and down to earth. He is
certainly a family man, happily married for 25 years, with three
children, the oldest of whom suffers from Down’s syndrome.
Family holidays are more likely to be spent indulging in his favourite
hobby, hill walking, than in a Caribbean paradise. And while his pounds
513,000 annual salary suggests he could afford to join the Knightsbridge
elite, he has lived in the same terraced house in Stockwell for 24
So how can nice-guy-Bob be reconciled with Draconian management
Ambition, may be the answer. Ayling is ambitious for himself and for his
airline. In just 18 months he has overseen the proposed alliance with
American Airlines, introduced a controversial global identity for the
airline, and set the target of cost savings of pounds 1bn over three
Ayling clearly knows where he wants BA to be, and he’s in a hurry to get
there. The problem appears to be that while Ayling is ready for take off
many BA staff haven’t even packed their bags.
His tenure has certainly generated renewed enthusiasm among senior
managers, who are reportedly won over by Ayling’s open management style
Yet the speed of change has alarmed the grassroots of the company and
led to the clash with the unions.
Ayling’s motivation is reputed to stem from the failure of his father’s
business in the 1960s. As the family tightened its belt, Ayling had to
leave school at 16 with six ’O’ levels, an event he has since described
as ’quite frightening’.
He joined a legal company, becoming the firm’s youngest partner at 24.
Five years later he moved to the Department of Trade to join the team
handling the UK’s entry into the EEC.
He was recruited to BA in 1985 and has been groomed for the most senior
role under the chairmanships of Lord King and Sir Colin Marshall.
’He is relighting the fire within BA,’ says John Sorrell, a partner in
Newell and Sorrell, the design agency behind BA’s new corporate
’Over the next two or three years an appreciation of Bob’s real
strengths of leadership and vision will spread.’
Given his background, it is ironic that Ayling’s problems now seem to
stem from his inability to translate his vision to British Airways rank
Articled clerk then partner Elbome Mitchell
Under secretary (legal) Department of Trade and Industry
Legal director, human resources director, marketing and operations
director British Airways
Group managing director British Airways
Chief executive British Airways