Obituary: Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge; Chief executive who steered BA through its privatisation in the 1980s
Born: 6 November, 1933, in Middlesex. Died: 5 July, 2012, in London, aged 78.
Colin Marshalll joined BA as chief executive in 1983 to further the corporate restructuring already begun by Lord King. The aim was to improve the company’s profits and prepare for a floating on the Stock Exchange. King was a buccaneering industrialist while Marshall was more conventional and restrained, with a keen eye for figures and detail. He remembered names, greeted staff warmly and understood the complexities of the travel business. The two got on well and together turned round BA to become the personification of the privatisation policy of Margaret Thatcher.
On arriving at BA Marshall faced major challenges. It had been losing £140 million a year and still operated unprofitable routes with uneconomic aircraft. On top of that the company owned Concorde, which, for all its fame, lost money on every trip.
Marshall changed the company’s image, corporate strategy and its relationship with its passengers. The motto “To Fly. To Serve” was stamped on every BA aircraft tail and reflected Marshall’s own hands-on approach.
Colin Marsh Marshall was educated on a scholarship at University College School in Hampstead and first worked for the Orient shipping line as a cadet purser. On such a cruise in 1956 he met his future wife, Janet Cracknell. They married two years later and Marshall moved to New York to take up a post with Hertz, the car-hire firm. He was promoted within the company but in 1964 he was head hunted by Avis, the principal competitor. In 1971 he was its chief executive but after Avis was taken over in 1981 Marshall returned to Britain to manage Sears Holdings. Two years later King headhunted him for the top job at BA.
Marshall’s training in people management and his shrewd commercial skills made him an inspiring figure to compliment the go-getting King. Marshall was in charge of upgrading the service, restoring staff morale and making BA “The world’s favourite airline”.
Marshall wrote years later: “We had to sweep away the dust and dirt of generations of economic and attitudinal litter… Then BA needed to be polished to the point where it would both attract the customer and dazzle the competition.”
The company received a Stock Exchange quotation in 1987 and two years later BA made a pre-tax profit of £268m. Marshall travelled to Scotland prior to the flotation to meet the business community at a Glasgow hotel. His enthusiasm and obvious energy proved popular with institutional and private investors throughout Scotland.
Another connection with Scotland came in 1989 when BA took over British Caledonian (BCal), formerly the Scottish charter airline, Caledonian Airways. BCal had been very successful in the early 1980s when it was voted the best airline in the world. At the end of the decade, however, the company was facing some commercial setbacks and Marshall spearheaded a £235m bid from BA. The merged company immediately had a premier position in the lucrative transatlantic business.
Marshall kept a close eye on the day-to-day running of the airline. When terrorism threatened to reduce transatlantic travel Marshall flew over a group of influential tourists for a much publicised cup of tea with Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street. He ordered that food be served before a flight to overnight passengers so they could sleep throughout the flight and not be troubled with in-flight service.
It was such enlightened touches that made Marshall a popular executive. When King allegedly took action against Virgin after Virgin had been granted a license to operate out of Heathrow, Marshall remained aloof from the scandal.
King left BA and Marshall became the chairman in 1993, taking on a non-executive role in 1996. But he returned four years later when his successor, Bob Ayling, reported some disastrous figures.
Worse, Ayling had changed the design of the tailfins from the Union Jack to an “ethnic art’” logo. When visiting a BA factory Mrs Thatcher famously covered the design with a disapproving grimace and her handkerchief.
But the airline business was in turmoil. The high price of fuel, the rise of low-cost airlines and severe competition on long-haul flights made Marshall’s last few years at BA extremely demanding. He retired from the company in 2004.
Away from his business Marshall was a major figure on the boardrooms of companies such as Inchcape, BT, HSBC and was president of the CBI. Marshall was a keen sportsman and played tennis at the Queen’s Club and the All England Club. He was often seen on international days at Twickenham and remained a devoted Arsenal fan all his life.
Marshall was knighted in 1987 and created a life peer in 1998. He is survived by his wife and daughter.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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