Just a few short weeks ago Bob Ayling was New Labour’s management darling.

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

corporate identity.

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

BA’s case.

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

and vision.

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

and file.



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