Magazine article Management Today

Michael Bishop's Obsession

Magazine article Management Today

Michael Bishop's Obsession

Article excerpt

'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 it is in the genes. His father, an Australian who settled in this country after World War 1 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 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 nose-dived. One of the reasons he is still around, says Bishop, is that he knows his core business back to front and hasn't 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. Bishops, 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 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.

Even Bishop will admit though that the airline business has a certain mystique, a constant undercurrent of excitement. He himself 'caught the virus', when, as a 16-year-old schoolboy, he took a holiday job at Manchester Airport with a tiny charter and aerial photography company. When he left school he spent three years learning the family business but both he and his father soon realised his heart lay elsewhere. Bishop senior sold the business and retired while Michael, now 21, started his airline career proper at Manchester by setting up an aircraft handling business for a locally-based airline. When that airline, Mercury, was taken over in 1964 by British Midland Airways he joined the new company and has remained there ever since. He was its general manager by the age of 27, managing director at 30; then, in 1978, with his long-term partners John Wolfe and Stuart Balmforth, he staged one of the UK's first management buyouts.

They paid 1.8 pounds million. Almost exactly a decade later the Scandinavian airline, SAS, bought a 25% stake for 25 pounds million, valuing the company at 100 pounds million and leaving Bishop very rich. …

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