Page last updated at 19:18 GMT, Tuesday, 12 July 2005 20:18 UK

Farewell to a king of British business

By Jeff Randall
BBC business editor

Lord King
Lord King came very much from the old school

Few post-war industrialists have left a bigger mark on mainstream British commerce than Lord King, who died on Tuesday.

As chairman of British Airways from 1981 to 1993, he led an executive team that transformed the UK flag-carrier from a loss-making shambles into "the world's favourite airline".

When John King was recruited by his friend Mrs Thatcher to help privatise BA, few in the sector rated his chances.

The company was over-manned, poorly managed and still reeling from the disruption caused by the bungled merger of British European Airways (BEA) and British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the deal that created BA.

Bird to the skies

But King was nothing if not bloody minded. He was also an astute manipulator of people, a talent he hid cunningly behind a fašade of gruff authority.

He made his fortune in the engineering industry, but took to the challenges of international aviation like a bird to the skies.

King was a conventional man; very much old-school. He really did enjoy huntin', shootin' and fishin'
Jeff Randall

Along with his chief executive, Colin Marshall, King pulled off the considerable trick of cutting tens of thousands of jobs at BA while lifting staff morale and modernising operations.

American corporate designers were called in to give BA planes a new look, and the Saatchi brothers, Maurice and Charles, were hired to jazz up the company's image with customers.

This unlikely combination proved to be a winning one. BA began to prosper, just as many of its rivals, such as Pan-Am, were floundering.

Humble beginnings

For someone who loved to play the Leicestershire country squire, John King's roots were remarkably humble.

He left school at 14, worked for a while on the shop floor, but pulled off a personal coup in 1941 when marrying the boss's daughter. From there, he never looked back.

Sir Richard Branson
Lord King's bitter battle with this man cast a shadow over his reign

He took over an engineering business in Yorkshire and sold it 20 years later for millions.

King was a conventional man; very much old-school. He really did enjoy huntin', shootin' and fishin'.

In London he liked to wear highly polished shoes, shirts with double cuffs and blue pinstriped suits with a watch and chain.

He was a member at two of London's most exclusive gentlemen's clubs, White's and Pratt's.

Yet behind this exterior of formality was a mischievous soul who enjoyed a glass of champagne and good gossip with the few journalists he trusted.


Lunch with King was often a long one, usually at the Grill Room in London's Savoy Hotel or at his favourite table at Wilton's, a seafood restaurant in Jermyn Street.

I got to know King during BA's privatisation in 1987 and followed his career through the takeover of British Caledonian and the extraordinary battles with Richard Branson.

That long-running row with Virgin Atlantic, which ended with BA being found guilty of "dirty tricks", cast a shadow over King's final months in the airline business.

BA was forced to make a public apology and pay damages to Branson, leaving King disappointed and disillusioned.

For the rest of his days, he resented the way he had been outmanoeuvred by Virgin.

John King was a member of a small group of swashbuckling businessmen who rose to prominence and made serious money in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, a time when much of the country was suffering from industrial decline.

Others were Lord Hanson, one of King's closest friends, and Lord Weinstock, the driving force behind GEC.

All three have now passed on and with them goes a style of doing business that in an age of enhanced corporate governance and acute political correctness seems not just from another time but another world.

BA ex-chief Lord King dies at 87
12 Jul 05 |  Business

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