John King, Baron King of Wartnaby

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John Leonard King, Baron King of Wartnaby (29 August 1917 – 12 July 2005) was a British businessman, who was noted for leading British Airways from an inefficient, nationalised company to one of the most successful airlines of recent times. This success was a flagship of Margaret Thatcher's privatisation programme. He was also directly involved with the "dirty tricks" campaign waged by British Airways, against Virgin Atlantic.

Early life and career

King was born in Brentford, West London. His father Albert had fought in the First World War, and later worked as a postman; his Irish mother Kathleen worked as a seamstress. He was the second of four children. He was reared on a small property attached to a public house in Dunsfold, Surrey. He left school in 1929 at the age of 12 without qualifications and started work in a local factory which produced vacuum cleaners, where his work included machining clamping stays, earning him the nickname "Clamping Stay King". His next job was with local businessman Arthur Sykes, as a car salesman (with duties including re-possessing cars from people who had failed to make the necessary payments) before setting up his own taxi business and acquiring a Ford cars sub-agency and naming it Whitehouse Motors. When the second World War broke out, the motor business folded, but by then King had diversified into more general engineering work and so prospered from defence contracts and making parts for aircraft. He benefited hugely from War Ministry contracts and was able to use rare American machine tools that he acquired under the Lend Lease programme.

After the war King moved to Canada for a time, before returning to England and building a factory on wasteland in Ferrybridge, Yorkshire to establish Ferrybridge Industries. After renaming it the Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Company and producing millions of ball bearings per year, it grew to become a major operation spanning several continents (the third-largest ball-bearing business in the UK). After being forced to merge the business with another manufacturer, Ransome & Marles, as part of a government reorganisation of the ball bearing business, King sold it for £10m in 1968, netting some £3m personally.

He became Chairman of Dennis Specialist Vehicles in 1970, and Babcock International in 1972. Babcock was acquired by FKI Electricals for £415 million in August 1987. King, Babcock chairman since 1972, became chairman of the new combined company, called FKI Babcock. He was knighted in 1979, and appointed Chairman of the National Enterprise Board in 1980 and, famously, taking over as head of British Airways.

British Airways

Dubbed "Mrs. Thatcher's favourite businessman" he was chosen to prepare the loss-making nationalised flag carrier for privatisation. King joined British Airways in 1981 when the airline was losing in excess of £140m a year. By 1989, the airline was making a pre-tax profit of £268m. Some of King's major changes at the airline included removing 22,000 staff members, hiring Colin Marshall as CEO in 1983, removing older aircrafts from the fleet, purchasing more modern and efficient airliners, and axing unprofitable routes. Within two years King had replaced over half of the BA board with his own appointees. When BA was privatised in 1987, the initial share offering was 11 times oversubscribed. His compensation as chairman rose from about £250,000 in 1988 to £669,350 (including a £220,000 bonus) in 1991. King was made a life peer as Baron King of Wartnaby, (in the County of Leicestershire) in 1983.

Lord King recognised the importance of Concorde to British Airways. In its early years of service with BA, Concorde lost the carrier money and attracted criticism from the press as a white elephant. BA used Concorde to win business customers from transatlantic competitors by guaranteeing a certain number of Concorde upgrades in return for corporate accounts with the airline.

Virgin Atlantic Airways and the "Dirty Tricks" Scandal

Around the same time British Airways was witnessing the emergence of a dangerous rival, Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic. Virgin, which began with one route and one Boeing 747 in 1984, was emerging as a serious threat on some of BA's most lucrative routes. Following a highly publicised mercy mission to Iraq to fly home hostages who had been held by Saddam Hussein in 1991, King is reported to have told Marshall and his PA Director David Burnside to "do something about Branson". This began the campaign of "dirty tricks", for which Branson sued King and British Airways for libel in 1992. King countersued Branson with the case scheduled for trial in 1993. However, it was settled out of court, with BA paying damages to Branson of £500,000 and a further £110,000 to his airline; further, BA paid legal fees of up to £3 million.

Later career

King stepped down from his BA leadership role in 1993, but remained BA president emeritus. His interests included directorships at the Daily Telegraph, Spectator, headhunting company Norman Broadbent, and engineering firm Short Brothers. However, it can be said that until the end he remained passionate about his "ugly duckling that became the world's favourite airline."

Marriage and children

King was married twice; first to Lorna Sykes (daughter of his first boss Arthur Sykes and sister-in-law of John Poulson) in 1941, and then to the Hon Isabel Monkton, daughter of 8th Viscount Galway, whom he met on the hunting field, in 1970. His first marriage to Lorna Sykes ended with her death from cancer in 1969.

His second wife Isabel outlived King by five years, dying at age 83 in January 2010, again of cancer. The three were buried together (at King's request) in the church yard of St Michael and All Angels near Wartnaby.

King fathered four children during his marriage to Lorna Sykes – The Hon. Richard (born 1943), twins the Hon. Philip and Rupert (born 1950) and the Hon. Rachel (born 1945).

Personal life

A keen huntsman from an early age, King held the rank of MFH (Master of Foxhounds) with the Belvoir and Badsworth hunts and was also Chairman of the Lord King XI cricket team.

He and wife Lorna both learnt to fly and they would use an aircraft to tour the UK and drum up business.

King kept a flat in London for many years, in Eaton Square, and during his time running British Airways he lived there during the week full-time. At weekends, he travelled north to his country estate, Friars Well Estate, near Melton Mowbray in the county of Leicestershire. He also had a house in Scotland, close to the River Naver, where he pursued his love of fly fishing.


Arms of John King, Baron King of Wartnaby
A Coronet of a Baron
An Otter sejant Vert holding in the dexter paw a Sceptre Or
Or five Piles two reversed Vert each charge with an Acorn slipped of the field
On either side a Horse reguardant Sable unguled Or in the mouth of each a Sprig of Oak Vert fructed Or
La Fortune Passe Par Tout (The vicissitudes of fortune are common to all)


  1. Gregory, Martyn (2000) Dirty Tricks, British Airways' secret war against Virgin Atlantic (3rd Ed). Virgin Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7535-0458-8
  2. Guardian Unlimited:Ups and downs of Iron Lady's favourites
  3. New York Times report on death
  4. Guardian obituary