The Battle for British Airways

February 4, 2010

Willie Walsh

Willie Walsh was brought into British Airlines with a justified reputation as a tough negotiator. His toughness has been met with robust rejection by the UNITE union. What’s going on at BA?

The global credit crunch has affected every international business. While there are strategic opportunities, threats are easier to see. According to a recent Business Week report:

Some observers question whether BA will shutter or try to sell (good luck in this environment) the BA OpenSkies subsidiary, which runs flights from Paris and Amsterdam to the U.S., just a year after it was created.

Further stoking investor fear, Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson said that he had looked at making a bid for BA but that “the airline wasn’t worth much anymore.” Branson then urged the British government not to intervene to save BA. “It would be better to wait for its demise,” he told the BBC.

At first sight, the news seems unfathomable. It seems that an e-mail had gone out to 30,000 UK employees [June 17th 2009] asking them to volunteer to take up to a month’s unpaid leave, or unpaid work. Such an appeal for loyalty seems unlikely to succeed in a situation where the leader’s style is noted as a rather enthusiastically confrontational one.

The story followed news of a personal gesture by Mr Walsh to work for a month unpaid. But this is too easy to dismiss by workers as being alright for someone like their well-heeled leader. Nor would the new offer be helped by the news that an offer to pilots has been made of shares in the company for a new deal.

According to the BBC

Mr Walsh said BA’s drive to save cash was part of a “fight for survival ..I am looking for every single part of the company to take part in some way in this cash-effective way of helping the company’s survival plan

Strikes averted, strikes threatened

The tough stance cut no ice with the unions. A strike over the Christmas Holiday period was overwhelmingly supported, and narrowly averted through a High Court action by BA. But the Unions continued to plan strike action, probably for the next major Holiday period in the Spring of 2010. In February, The company response was again to take a tough line.

In a ­letter to BA’s 38,000 staff, Walsh offered the opportunity to become “volunteer cabin crew”. He said: “I am asking for volunteers to back BA by training to work alongside cabin crew who choose not to support a strike, so we are ready to keep our customers flying as much as we possibly can if this strike goes ahead.” BA is confident that staff can be trained and certified by the beginning of March 2010, which is the earliest possible date for a cabin crew walkout if, as expected, about 12,000 employees vote for industrial action over staffing cuts.

Discussions between Unite and BA have failed to reach an agreement so far and both sides broke their silences today to cry betrayal. BA said Unite had misled the airline by organising a strike ballot while holding peace talks while Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said BA was attempting to break a walkout with “scab labour who have had minimum training”.

A leader’s bid for cooperation

When a leader makes a bid for cooperation, reputation is likely to play a part in its reception. An earlier post in LWD was highly critical of the BA leadership style under Willie Walsh. The outcome may help throw light on the old question of situational leadership.

Creative ideas needed

As often happens, a crisis can drive creative thinking out of the window. But are there opportunities for trying out new ideas to avoid the company sliding into further decline?


Toyota Fights to Preserve its Global Brand

February 4, 2010

Toyota faces its biggest crisis over a serious weakening of its reputation for quality control. How might creative leadership preserve its global brand?

Toyota has been hailed as the company of the future. This site has made no secret of its admiration for the company’s success. But events are now suggesting that the company has a lot of work to do in preserving its global brand. A year ago we wrote [Jan 2009] that Toyota’s business model was on trial:

Toyota is hurting, and Company chief Katsuaki Watanabe recently announced a projection for a first annual trading loss in its seventy year history. But Toyota’s pain still seems likely to be more sustainable than that being suffered by its rivals, whose fate is one of the urgent problems facing incoming President Obama, and who are pressing (begging?) for state bale-outs. For Chrysler, and GM, job losses are inevitable, while even survival in their present state seems increasingly unlikely. Its reaction to over-supply is to announced a temporary suspension of production for 11 days [Feb-March 2009] in all its 12 Japanese production units.

Now, [Jan 2010] Toyota is experiencing one of those crises which can rock a company to its core. Shares plummeted, as the company prepared to recall eight million vehicles globally because of problems with accelerator pedals on seven models.

At a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, [Feb 3rd 2010] US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood alarmed both investors and consumers with the advice, which he later retracted, that owners of a recalled Toyota should “stop driving it”.

The carmaker said it was not aware of any accidents resulting from the issue and that only 26 incidents involving accelerator pedals had been reported in Europe. Last year, Toyota was forced to recall about 5 million cars worldwide over problems with floor mats trapping pedals. END
Toyota’s UK spokesman Scott Brownlee denied that the firm had delayed the accelerator pedal recall in the UK, stating it was a quality rather than a safety issue.

The Perrier Story

The developing story, although potentially far more significant has echoes of the Perrier case.

This relates to the crisis faced by the Perrier brand in the late 1980s. John Mowen & Michael Minor in their text book on Consumer Behaviour explain what happened

Perrier Group of America announced a highly embarrassing product recall [February 9, 1990]. The recall came in response to a report stating that Perrier’s high-priced bottled water was contaminated with benzene. Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that the benzene levels did not pose “a significant short-term health risk,” Perrier’s management requested the removal of the brand from supermarkets and restaurants in the United States and Canada.

The incident turned into a public relations disaster, in large part because the company’s explanation for the recall kept changing. After traces of benzene were found in Perrier bottles in other parts of the world, company officials altered their original explanation. Benzene, they now said, is naturally present in carbon dioxide (the gas that makes Perrier bubbly) and is normally filtered out before the water is bottled. For unknown reasons workers had inexplicably failed to change the filters. Meanwhile, Perrier still insisted that its famous spring in Vergeze, France was unpolluted. By 1995, Perrier sales had fallen to one-half their 1989 peak. The company had to mount a comeback strategy. While attempting to regain share for the Perrier brand through new distribution channels, the company began to invest in other brands that did not have the Perrier name attached to them. The question remains, however, will the memory of the benzene incident forever tarnish Perrier brand name?

Lessons for Toyota

In times of corporate crisis, Denial is still a likely response. What might Toyota do to avoid the dangers of permanent damage to its future as a brand? Can lessons be learned from the fate of Perrier? What steps might a creative leadership take?

Acknowledgement

With grateful thanks to Susan Moger for her insightful comments on this story.