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Willie Walsh – Planes, Change and Airport Troubles …

July 13, 2011

It's a fast business ...

Willie Wash, the CEO of International Airlines Group – the holding company of British Airways (BA) and Iberia –  moves fast. He heads up a fast paced business – each year carrying 49 million humans all over the world in its fleet of 419 jets. Willie Walsh talks fast. He takes questions easily and answers them quickly, peppering his comments with facts, stats and detail. His to do list will cover everything from oil prices to volcanoes, from  tourism to terrorism. And last night he entertained a packed room at Adam Street Club – offering a rare insight into the type of character that leads a global business that employs 56,000 people with revenues north of £14 billion.

Of course, I should not be surprised that he talks, thinks and responds at pace. Afterall, this is a man who became an Aer Lingus pilot aged just 17. He says that he  took the pilot aptitude tests at Aer Lingus to get a day of school with his mates – and found he liked it. By 1979 he was flying jets for Aer Lingus and by 2001 he was their CEO  – leading it through a massive restructure and having to make 2000 redundancies just to keep it alive. By 2005, aged just 43 – he was CEO of British Airways, a world renowned flag carrier for the UK and one of the world’s most prestigious brands. And this year he steered BA to merge with Iberian Airlines to form International Airlines Group – the sixth largest airline business in the world. As I say –  he does things fast.

As a public media figure it is easy to stereotype and simplify a character such as Walsh. Too often, all that is known is that he’s a charming Irishman with the gift of the gab, that he is quick to quarrel with unions and as head of a massive airline he has a heavy hand in global warming. As Ben Goldacre is often fond to say when looking rationally at complex issues –  ‘its a little bit more complicated than that’ and the benefit of an event such as last night is that it offers a chance to hear from the real person behind the noise and flack of media bias and interviews. Walsh’s two mobile phones buzz with a stream of problems that would send most to consider an alternative career.  Aggressive price based competition from low-cost operators such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet – are just the start. The disastrous roll out of Terminal 5 at Heathrow – and the delays from volcanic ash and snow storms damaged brand and trust. UK-based airlines live under a crippling tax regime. And – BA has massive value chain pressures too, from the likes of BAA and oil suppliers. He describes his relationship with BAA as being ‘80% common interest and 20% violent disagreement’.  And that’s just the lists of external pressures – there are plenty of internal headaches too. The need to restructure a business, challenge unions and introduce efficiencies so that the company can compete globally. Complex issues, technical problems, tough calls.

Walsh began his talk by discussing Heathrow – and it’s clearly an item near the top of his agenda, as without a competitive hub for the UK’s national carrier everything else could be viewed as (to borrow from Albert Einstein) –  ‘mere detail’. He offered some astonishing facts; whilst political and media debate looks to stifle a third runway at Heathrow – the rest of the world is building the global transport infrastructure that will critically link them to the economy of the future: China. Amsterdam is looking to scrap airport taxes and already flies to six cities in China. Meanwhile – the UK introduced the Aviation Passenger Duty tax regime –  that can add an extra £300 on a ticket – and we still only fly direct to two Chinese airports.  Over the past five years (whilst the UK has been debating the third runway at Heathrow) – China has built 45 new international airports and will add a further 52 within six years. And – within five years, Dubai will be a bigger hub for global travel than Heathrow. These are big numbers and massive issues for leaders in government and industry to address if the UK is to retain its competitive edge. And to fix and build solutions to these kind of problems you can see why laid back and traditional style are not very helpful. If you’re going to run a business like BA and Iberia you need a lot of energy – something that Walsh has in massive supply. But how does he face this constant stream of big problems? Firstly, his advice on taking over a new role gives a hint: get to know your people and don’t rush to hasty decisions. He clearly values his top team. Secondly – his key learning from Terminal 5 – do not compromise on testing and familiarising yourself with a new product. Finally, and what was a surprise, is that Walsh does not take himself too seriously either. He recalls how nearly twenty years after he first joined Aer Lingus, he was able to check his original interview notes – when he became CEO of the business. Reading the old notes he discovered that whilst one assessor described him as ‘very confident’ – another just said he was a ‘cocky little bastard’.  One man’s ‘very confident’ is another’s ‘cocky little bastard’. There is a whiff of the Mourinho about Willie Walsh and he is not everyone’s cup of in-flight beverage. He acknowledges that taking the media flack comes with the territory.  But in a world where everything is built for speed – a truly global business needs a CEO that is fast and Willie Wash, love him or hate him –  does not have a slow setting.

For more comment and advice on alliances, collaboration partnership marketing please visit www.benchstone.co.uk

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