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Orient Line Purser Cadet - Reaches For The Sky

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge (1933 – 2012)

From Cadet Purser with The Orient Line in 1951.

To saviour of British Airways

By John Martin

Colin Marshall started his career as a Purser Cadet with Orient Line in 1951.

Seven years later he married Janet Cracknell one of his colleagues, an Assistant Purser, (FAP’s as they were referred to in those days), and ‘swallowed the anchor’ starting as a management trainee with Hertz in the US but then based in other countries.

He was poached to take over Avis in Europe where he used the slogan “We’re No.2. We try harder” epitomised a firm that put customer service first which resulted in them becoming No.1 in Europe.

As a result, he was recalled to the USA, initially becoming Avis’ Chief Operating Officer and subsequently Chief Executive Officer for global operations.

In 1983 he was head-hunted to join British Airways as CEO to Lord King’s chairmanship as the ideal customer services man. This at a time when BA was ridiculed as ‘Bloody Awful’. “A state airline operated largely for the benefit of staff and civil servants - between whom it was sometimes difficult to distinguish”. There was no emphasis on caring for passengers, nor need to turn a profit. He saw these virtues as interdependent.

He did not forget his Purser’s roots. Although Orient Lines had integrated with P&O as P&O-Orient Lines in 1960, and fully became P&O in 1966, Colin Marshall invited some of his ex-colleagues from Orient Line days to join him for lunch at Heathrow.

Fleet Hotel Services Manager R.L. ‘Bob’ Hewson and Hotel Operations Manager M.G. ‘Maurice’ Onslow got the invitation in July 1984. The visit was to include a look at the kitchens provisioning the planes and BA’s training centre. The Training Officer got to ‘tag along’ as well.

As a caterer, I was fascinated by the production kitchens for inflight meals. The precautions taken to prevent contamination and cross-contamination and the conveyor belt process that comprised the dishes and determined the flights to which they were directed. Feeding around 90,000 customers per day flying to 130 destinations.

There was a lot of nervousness by staff when we were taken to the executive dining room. No wonder. Under Lord King, 70 senior managers and 22,000 others were culled. We were entertained over lunch with Colin Marshall’s stories of his findings concerning customer service. He regularly traveled on flights, routinely working an aircraft meeting all the crew, and tirelessly quizzing passengers.

One I remember. Passengers complained about having to use their teeth to open the individual sachets of salad dressing etc. that came with their meals, for it then to squirt onto their clothing. The response by the BA provisioning department was ‘well we could provide scissors for the cabin crew to help passengers to open the sachets for those who have difficulty.

His argument was that with the purchasing power of BA that they told the suppliers what they wanted, not what they were given. Thus the ‘nick’ in the sachet to easily tear it open. Subsequently, the small pots with peel-off lids.

At the training centre we were given a flight in a Boeing 747 simulator and Bob Hewson was given the chance to pilot a circuit around Heathrow. He didn’t do too badly under the watchful eye of a professional ‘co-pilot’. Very realistic it was too, even the rather hard ‘landing’.

We were also shown the various ‘mock-ups’ of cabin interiors in which newly recruited cabin crew were inducted, followed by a briefing by their chief cabin services training officer. “What is it that you look for when recruiting your hotel service crew in P&O?” she asked. Bob and Maurice looked at me. They had agreed to my suggestion that Hotel Services should be involved in the recruitment of UK personnel that were going to be involved in passenger services, rather than rely on what we were given by Fleet Personnel, most of whom came from ‘the pool’.

To convince the NUS that stewards who were on ‘standby’ waiting for ships were not necessarily of the caliber of person who would be willing to put the customer first, we drafted an interview scoring system with personnel that placed a priority on social skills for those who were being recruited for passenger interface roles, especially restaurant staff. This did involve an element of role-play and responses to customer service situations they might find onboard. The NUS were always invited to sit in on such interviews so they could see the process but tended to decline as they might be seen as being part of the recruitment itself. We could only recruit from outside the MN ‘establishment’ when we could not fill the vacancies within. And that was frequently.

As I explained to the BA training officer when dealing with passengers, warm communication skills that demonstrated a caring attitude was more important than knowledge and technical skills which could be learned through appropriate training. I further went on “with just the requirement of 2 ‘A’ levels to become a cabin attendant for BA, it was no wonder that economy passengers were referred to as ‘cattle class’”. “Ah” she responded, “we have just come to that conclusion ourselves”.

Putting People First

The Colin Marshall plan to transform British Airways from a lamentable waste of taxpayers' money to a profitable premier-league airline was far-reaching. He inculcated a customer service ethic through a pioneering programme called "Putting People First," in which every employee was invited to spend a day learning the airline's new mantra – and meeting the man responsible. One of his key messages was on service recovery: "The customer doesn't expect everything will go right all of the time – the big test is what you do when things go wrong".

Colin Marshall

His mission statement was “to ensure that BA is the customer’s first choice through the delivery of an unbeatable travel experience”. The ‘Putting People First’ programme became an exemplar to the airline industry. It introduced the ‘Club Class’ and club lounges, mainly catering for business passengers. It was a result of his efforts that he was able to preside over the adoption of the tagline ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’ based on research that showed BA had the widest reach of nationalities among its passengers.

It worked. Turnover doubled and healthy profits came from a base of loss. He became ‘Sir Colin’ after the airline was privatised in 1987 and he took over the role of Chairman from Lord King in 1993. He was made a Life Peer in 1998.

I like to think that it was this visit to Heathrow that Bob Hewson agreed that Hotel Services could have its own training suite incorporating a cabin and bar mock-up when most of P&O Cruises Head Office moved from Beaufort House in London to Duke’s Keep joining the Southampton operations office in early 1985. It had its own wall-mounted mobile display boards, and a screen to run training videos and rerun video recordings taken during training sessions. Not only for hotel service staff, but also – to the consternation of other onboard departments, customer service skills for them as well. The Hotel Services training department grew by 100%. Cautiously from one to two.

Alas, when most fleet functions were disbanded in 1986 when P&O Cruises were separated into three geographical operating companies, the role of Fleet Shipboard Training Manager was made redundant. The main beneficiary was my colleague, good friend and namesake Neal Martin who took over the training department for P&O Cruises UK which became crucial when new builds started coming online. Hotel Services also gained their own director. As Neal later told me “You were right saying that training would only be properly recognised if we had a director on the board who considered training an investment rather than a cost”. I was delighted when Neal himself became Director, Hotel Services & Entertainment.

As for British Airways. Its fortunes have nosedived, even before the pandemic. Cost cutting and shoddy service turned “the World’s Favourite Airline” in to “Broken Airways”. Any ex-Purser Cadets out there willing to try and rescue it again?


John Martin at sea before he

‘swallowed the anchor’ to become

P&O Hotel Services Training Officer

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