Magazine article Marketing

Turbulent Times

Magazine article Marketing

Turbulent Times

Article excerpt

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

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' school."

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. …

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