Lord King Of Wartnaby was appointed Chairman of British Airways by Margaret Thatcher in 1981.
Along with CEO Colin Marshall who Lord King recruited in 1983, he is widely credited with turning around the airline and preparing it for its successful privatisation in 1987.
Like Colin Marshall, Lord King was recruited to BA from outside the aviation industry, having previously founded his own ball bearing business and been president and Chairman of Babcock International.
Lord King saw this as an advantage. Speaking to Fortune magazine, Lord King said “There seemed to be an advantage to not knowing too much about the business. […] In my ignorance I could do things I might not have done if I had been better informed.”
Lord King was not known for having an emollient manner and had little patience with journalists. He was famously furious with a Financial Times profile of him. His recruitment of Colin Marshall, known as being effective foil to Lord King with his cool and unflappable style, showed a degree of self-awareness.
You can hear Lord King speak for himself in this 1991 edition of Desert Island Discs with Sue Lawley.
Although Lord King does come across as a little cold at first he does warm up later into the interview and clearly had a strong passion for business.
There is little Lord King says in the interview that many current aviation CEOs of today would disagree with, particularly the references to the need for rational decision making and that sometimes painful decisions have to be made in the long term interests of the company.
Lord King also complains about government regulation and the barriers to true consolidation in the industry – two issues which are still very much alive today.
Back to Lord King’s tenure at BA, his later years were marred by the “Dirty Tricks” scandal of the early 1990s against Virgin Atlantic.
This ultimately resulted in BA settling a libel case brought by Richard Branson. Although BA denied any co-ordinated campaign to undermine Virgin Atlantic, BA did accept that an internal investigation had found “incidents involving our employees which we accept were regrettable and which gave Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic reasonable grounds for concern.” Lord King subsequently moved from the role of Chairman to a new role of President, with Colin Marshall assuming the role of Chairman.
Lord King died at the age of 87 in 2005.