Business

Carolyn McCall: From airline to airwaves

Carolyn McCall Image copyright AFP

When Carolyn McCall announced that she was moving from the Guardian Media Group to become chief executive of EasyJet, rival Ryanair's Michael O'Leary dismissed her as a media luvvie.

With her new post at ITV, which she will take up early next year, Mr O'Leary can happily call her a media luvvie again, although her track record shows her capabilities spread far more widely.

Her first six months in the job in 2010 were enough to make anyone match fit.

Those saw three of the aviation industry's biggest headaches: volcanic ash clouds, a spike in the oil price and an air traffic controllers strike.

'Coaster'

But there's little in her early years that would suggest her as an establishment candidate whose career would read like a perfectly mapped flight path through some of the UK's best-known boardrooms, including Lloyds TSB, Tesco, Burberry and New Look.

She once described herself as a "coaster" at school, and rather middling as a school student, and claims she never had a plan for her career.

Born in Bangalore, in Southern India in 1961, she completed much of her schooling there before moving to the UK, attending school in Matlock in Derbyshire before going on to university at Canterbury in Kent.


Carolyn McCall, at a glance

  • University of Kent, Canterbury, history and politics degree
  • Teacher training, Holland Park Comprehensive
  • University of London, politics Masters degree
  • Costain
  • Guardian Media Group, chief executive
  • EasyJet, chief executive
  • ITV, chief executive (January 2018)

After that she almost became a teacher, doing her training at Holland Park Comprehensive in London, one of the most notorious of its time for its mixed demographic and free-thinking ethos. That experience seemed to have served to make her own appetite for education stronger and she went for a master's degree in politics from the University of London.

Her first job was at builders Costain, but she was strongly drawn towards the media.

To her delight she applied for and became a research planner at the Guardian in 1986, where her boss, a woman, shocked her by saying she could become the group's chief executive.

And, reader, she did.

By 2000, she had risen through the commercial ranks to become chief executive of the newspaper business, Guardian News & Media, and in 2006 she took the helm of the parent company.

Management Today magazine called her: "One of the toughest operators to have risen through the Guardian Media Group's ranks."

Mucking in

One of her landmark achievements there in 2005 was to take the paper from a Daily Telegraph-sized broadsheet to the pioneering, smaller Berliner format at an expense that raised eyebrows. But she also was involved at the start of the digital version of the Guardian.

During her time at EasyJet, passenger numbers have almost doubled.

She has also doubled the number of female applicants to become pilots under the Amy Johnson initiative.

On a more prosaic level, she is known for mucking in with the flight crew when flying, helping to clear up the rubbish while getting to know the staff and their concerns.

Her interest in supporting the progress of women is underlined by her naming one of her three children after political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, who helped women win the right to vote.

She is one of just a handful of female chief executives in the top 100 companies.

She was named Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year in April 2008, was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to women in business, was awarded a damehood in the New Year Honours list for services to the aviation industry and on top of that has been given France's highest merit, the Legion d'Honneur.

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