Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, who has died aged 78, was the long-serving chief executive and chairman of British Airways; he was also president of the CBI, and held a clutch of other demanding boardroom appointments.
Marshall in 1996, with BA staff Karen Robb (left) and Paula Coxall
A marketing and customer-care expert who learned his trade in the hire car business for Hertz and Avis, Marshall was a highly effective foil to Lord King of Wartnaby, the BA chairman appointed by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 to knock the underperforming and demoralised airline into shape for privatisation. Marshall joined BA as chief executive in 1983, after King had cleared out much of its old-guard management.
King was a self-made tycoon who had prospered in the ball-bearing industry, and was proud of his reputation as a rumbustious bruiser. Marshall was very much the opposite — smooth, unemotional, boyish in appearance and quietly attentive to detail — but the combination worked well, and the turnaround of BA came to celebrated as a beacon of Thatcherite business principles in action.
Staff numbers were slashed, the aircraft fleet was rationalised and profitability radically improved, while Marshall focused on transforming the airline’s image and its reputation with the travelling public.
Marshall later recalled: “Almost like an archaeological excavation, we had to sweep away the dust and dirt of generations of economic and attitudinal litter ... Then [the airline] needed to be polished to the point where it would both attract the customer and dazzle the competition.” The motto “To Fly, To Serve” was stamped on every BA aircraft tail.
BA’s £900 million stock market flotation in February 1987 was well received by investors, and was shortly followed by the takeover of British Caledonian to give BA a commanding market position on transatlantic routes.
Internal morale was greatly boosted, while advertising prompted by increased passenger numbers claimed BA to be “the world’s favourite airline” — a slogan which adhered long after its justification evaporated.
If Marshall’s first five years at BA cemented his reputation as a hugely competent business leader — rewarded by promotion to deputy chairman in 1989 — conditions became much more difficult after the end of the 1980s boom. The airline was to encounter almost constant turbulence over the following decade.
Perhaps the lowest moment came in the aftermath of the notorious “dirty tricks” campaign against Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines. Enraged by Branson’s irreverent publicity stunts and by a decision to allow Virgin to operate from Heathrow in 1991, King was reported to have ordered his subordinates to “do something about Branson”.
Extraordinary underhand tactics were adopted by BA managers to undermine Virgin ticket sales, though Marshall was never personally implicated. After a libel court found in favour of Virgin, and BA paid substantial damages, King stepped down to become “life president”, and Marshall succeeded as chairman.
There were more problems to come, including a souring of relations with the Conservative government — and with Margaret Thatcher herself, who took exception to an attempt (blamed on chief executive Bob Ayling) to give the airline a less nationalistic image by replacing its Union Flag livery with ethnic tail fin designs.
Meanwhile, the rise of low-cost airlines in Europe combined with tough long-haul competition made profits more volatile, and Ayling was ousted at the end of the decade to make way for Rod Eddington: but Marshall, as ever, remained largely above the fray. As the 20th anniversary of his first BA appointment — as well as his 70th birthday — approached, the City’s respect for him remained high, and his wisdom and networking skills were in constant demand in other boardrooms and committees. But institutional investors began to emit signals that it was time to bring his impressive BA innings to a close, and he duly retired in 2004.
Colin Marshall was born in Edgware on November 16 1933 and educated on a scholarship at University College School in Hampstead. He showed no interest in going on to university, preferring, as he put it, to “run away to sea” by joining the Orient shipping line as a 16-year-old cadet purser.
It was while serving on the liner Orsova in 1956 that he met his fellow officer and future wife, Janet Cracknell. Two years later he decided to follow up an introduction from his father — managing director of the Daimler limousine hire company in London — to Donald Petrie, a vice-president of the Hertz car-hire chain, who had waxed lyrical about career opportunities in North America. In May 1958 he married Janet Cracknell, and 10 days later the couple sailed for New York.
After training in Chicago and Toronto, Marshall became general manager of Hertz in Mexico City in 1959, and was briefly personal assistant to Petrie as president of the company in New York before being posted to run Hertz’s fledgling businesses in Britain and the Low Countries.
He swiftly caught the eye of Hertz’s chief rival Avis (motto: “We Try Harder”), which recruited him to expand its coverage across Europe, an assignment he later described as “the most interesting phase of my life”.
In 1971 he was called to head office in New York to become chief operating officer, and from 1976 to 1979 he was Avis’s chief executive — the only Briton running a major American corporation at the time.
Avis was in due course acquired by Norton Simon, a conglomerate owner of brands such as Canada Dry and Max Factor. Marshall continued to work for the group until 1981, when he moved to the retailer Sears Holdings as deputy chief executive until he was headhunted for BA.
During his senior career, Marshall accepted a remarkable number of corporate appointments outside BA — to the extent that City journalists regularly asked, or quoted investors asking, whether he had not taken on far more than he could effectively handle. “Territory too big for one Marshall” was a typical headline in 1997, when, besides BA and the presidency of the CBI, he was chairman of Inchcape, a trading group with extensive interests in the British motor trade, and deputy chairman of British Telecom — which was encountering major problems with a proposed US merger partner at the time.
He was also a director of HSBC, and the only overseas director of the New York Stock Exchange and HSBC. The announcement that his job tally was increasing to seven as he became chairman-elect of the engineering conglomerate Siebe (shortly to become Invensys, after merging with BTR) prompted a spokesman for the corporate governance watchdog PIRC to say: “Frankly, this is getting ridiculous.”
Marshall’s response was that he was fit, well and long accustomed to working 18-hour days: “The reality is, I will spend whatever time is required on each interest.”
In fact, he took on even more commitments, including the leadership of the “Britain in Europe” campaign for membership of the euro, which he declared would bring prosperity and confidence to British business.
Before stepping down from BA in 2004, he also acquired the chairmanship of Pirelli UK, the London Development Council and the Royal Institution of International Affairs at Chatham House. He was president of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council and the Knightsbridge Association, his neighbourhood residents’ group. He was chair of governors of Birkbeck College, London University; chairman of the trustees of the New York Conference Board, an influential business network; and a director of the Royal Automobile Club.
Post-BA, he took on the chairmanship of Nomura International, a Japanese investment bank in London, and the tourism promotion body VisitBritain.
Colin Marshall was a keen tennis player, both at Queen’s in west London, of which he was chairman, and the All England Club, and holidayed on the ski slopes or in the south of France when time permitted. He was also a lifelong Arsenal fan.
He was knighted in 1987 and created a life peer in 1998.
Lady Marshall and their daughter survive him.
Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, born November 16 1933, died July 5 2012