Colin Marshall, Who Revived British Airways, Dies at 78

Colin Marshall Former CEO of British Airways Plc
A file photo showing the late Colin Marshall, seen here as British Airways chairman in Oct. 2003. Marshall led British Airways for 13 years prior to the company’s privatization in 1987. Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Colin Marshall, the British-born, American-trained executive whose flair for marketing was credited for the turnaround of British Airways starting in the 1980s, has died. He was 78.

He died on July 5, the Times of London reported, without citing a cause.

As chief executive from 1983 to 1995 and chairman from 1993 to 2004, Marshall oversaw the transformation of British Airways into a premiere aviation brand. Among other steps, he emphasized customer service with a program called “Putting People First.”

“I was anxious to inculcate its principles into the minds of front-line people -- those who had direct contact with passengers, including people in customer-service jobs, check-in agents, flight attendants, pilots and reservations agents,” Marshall told W. Warner Burke and William Trahant for their 2000 book, “Business Climate Shifts: Profiles of Change Makers.”

He said he had first-hand knowledge of the airline’s weaknesses, since he had been a frequent trans-Atlantic flier from 1971 to 1981 when he was a New York-based executive for Avis:

“I knew that passengers didn’t get much service. I knew it not only from my own experience, but because I heard others talk about it, as well. The most serious thing I observed, though, was the low morale among employees. Passengers experienced airline employees as really lacking in enthusiasm for their jobs.”

Alliance Builder

British Airways became a private company in 1987, following 13 years as a state-run carrier, and Marshall became a director of the New York Stock Exchange. He was instrumental to the formation in 1999 of Oneworld, the alliance among British Airways, American Airlines, Canadian Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. He also presided during British Airways’ sometimes-nasty fight against a trans-Atlantic competitor, Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic.

Colin Marsh Marshall was born on Nov. 6, 1933, in Edgware, Middlesex, England, according to the Times. He enrolled at University College School in London and left at 17 for a job as a cadet purser on the Orient Line, working six-week passenger voyages to Australia.

During his seven years at sea, Marshall met and married his wife, Janet, a trainee purser with the company, the Times said.

In 1958, he joined Hertz, the car rental company. After training in Chicago and Toronto, Marshall became general manager of Hertz in Mexico City in 1959, according to the Daily Telegraph of London. After a brief stint in New York as assistant to the president, he moved back across the Atlantic to run Hertz’s business in the U.K., Netherlands and Belgium.

Joining Rival

In that role he was noticed and recruited by Hertz’s chief competitor Avis in 1964 to lead its expansion in Europe. By focusing on business travelers, he turned Avis into the top car rental company in the region, according to the Times. In 1971 he returned to New York to become chief operating officer, and from 1976 to 1979, CEO.

He returned to Britain in 1981 to become deputy chief executive of Sears. Two years later he was named CEO of British Airways.

From 1996 to 1998 Marshall was president of the Confederation of British Industry. He also served on the board of HSBC Holdings Plc, as chairman of Invensys Plc and Inchcape Plc and as deputy chairman of BT.

He was made a peer in the House of Lords in 1998 and had the title Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, according to the U.K. Parliament’s website.

He is survived by his wife, Janet, and a daughter, according to the Times.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE