The flying Scotsman has landed. Andrew Mernin meets Bill McPherson, the man behind the take-off of Newcastle’s new route to Dubai.
AS A boy growing up beneath the flight path of Glasgow Airport, Bill McPherson would train his eyes on passing jumbo jets and daydream about a job in aviation.
More than three decades, and a multitude of jobs around the world, later the 47-year-old has more than fulfilled his boyhood fantasy.
The globetrotting executive has run operations in airports across the globe, in places as far flung as Botswana, China and, more recently, the millionaires’ playground of Dubai.
His latest mission brings him closer to his native Scotland to Newcastle International Airport where he will run the operations of Emirates – the fastest-growing airline in the world.
The Arabic carrier will make its first flight to the North-East in September and is expecting huge demand for its Newcastle route.
From a boardroom at Newcastle Airport, far removed from the hordes of holidaymakers heading off to sunnier climes, a flustered McPherson tells me he is still getting to grips with his new role.
He says: “I’ve only been in the job for two weeks. Everything I own is in a container on its way back from Dubai. It’s due back sometime this week so I’m expecting a call any moment now.”
Once unpacked, McPherson will run all aspects of Emirates’ operation from ticketing and reservations, to checking in and luggage handling.
But the pace at which Emirates has grown in recent years would suggest there will be little – or no – honeymoon period for the softly spoken Scot.
This year alone the carrier has added six new destinations including Sao Paulo, Venice, Toronto and Houston and has 13 daily services from the UK.
It now flies to 92 destinations in 59 countries and is the single biggest customer of the new Airbus A380 with an order of 55.
While McPherson is well aware of the challenges ahead in his new job, his 30-year journey in the aviation sector would suggest he is fully prepared for any turbulence which may await.
It was as a schoolboy in 1970s Scotland that the executive’s love affair with the aviation business began. McPherson says: “We moved to Clydebank on the outskirts of Glasgow where our house was right under the flight path of the airport.
“From there I often wondered what it would be like to work at the airport and on leaving school I got the opportunity to go on work experience there – I have never looked back since.”
His first step in a long and winding career, spanning decades and numerous countries, was a job with British Caledonian Airways in Glasgow.
“Like many of the young people out there I took a job in my late teens as a check-in agent,” he says, nodding towards the bustling floor of Newcastle Airport at the height of the school holidays.
He then went on to work in various departments within the airport, eventually reaching the rank of supervisor.
“British Airways took over Caledonian and I was very fortunate to be put on a management development programme which opened me up to other areas of the airline business.
“I remember doing six months in the finance department which at the time I thought was the worst thing ever and being a service type of person it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
“But when I look back at it now it was probably the best six months I’ve ever done as I can now sit down with the finance people and talk budgets confidently.”
By 1991 the well-travelled Scotsman was a fully fledged airport manager and was sent on his first international mission to the Caribbean.
“I was very lucky and ended up in Antigua. That’s where I managed to get my handicap down playing golf.
“We had four flights a week and there wasn’t a lot to do there so I spent quite a lot of time on the golf course.”
In fact such is McPherson’s passion for golf that he is now known as Emirates’ own champion of the sport within the corridors of power at the company.
“I’ve won a few tournaments and have a few trophies to show for it that will go up on my mantelpiece as soon as I’m settled in here.”
After spending a year strolling the sun-kissed fairways of the Caribbean, the Glaswegian’s next assignment took him to Africa.
He ran British Airways’ services in Botswana in the south of the continent which he admits was a huge contrast to his previous job.
“I went to Gaborone in Botswana which was a completely different but beautiful place. Because it’s so close to South Africa there’s a lot of trade between the two countries so you get the backing of South Africa and you are not left wanting for anything.
“I spent quite a lot of my free time going down to Johannesburg as it was only a 40-minute flight. I think the experience of working in all these different places helped me immensely.”
As the travelling executive uncovers his tales from around the globe, one thing that radiates from behind the sharp suit and tie is his commitment to his family.
And while he admits his wife and children have been nomadic at times in the past while he pursued his high-flying career, he clearly puts the McPherson clan before anything else.
Alongside his wife he has two sons, Craig, 19, Scott, 17, and his 13-year-old daughter Katrina.
“In Botswana I had Craig at the time who was very small and I was going through the stage of creating the family.
“I decided to move back to Heathrow because I didn’t think it was fair on the family.”
Between 1992 and 1995 McPherson served at London Heathrow and was responsible for the transfer of six million passengers a year, leading a 150-strong workforce.
He then went on to work for KLM UK (formerly Air UK) where he ran 15 airport sites across the UK, oversaw more than 400 members of staff, and was responsible for a £15m budget.
But it was during this heady period of his career that it looked as though his job among the jet set was about to crash land.
“There was a worrying period towards the end of my time with KLM UK when redundancy loomed around the corner.
“Having only ever worked in the airline industry I didn’t know what else I could turn to.”
Thankfully for him and his family, McPherson turned to Emirates in 2000 and, after an eight-year stint in the UK, he moved to Dubai.
As regional manager of airport services for East Asia and the Pacific Rim, he managed 17 airports and opened new Emirates’ lounges in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
He also launched new routes to China, Japan and “a few in Australia,” he says modestly.
The airport boss admits setting up in new territory can throw up major challenges while keeping up with Emirates’ rapid growth plans does bring its own pressure.
“Emirates is moving so quickly I don’t think any of us has time to sit down and relax.”
In his seven years at the company he has also learned a lot from the varying ways different cultures from around the world conduct business.
“The way they do business in China is unique to them. It’s very delicate in how you make suggestions and ask them to consider different ways of doing things.
“You can sit round a table and talk formally about various things but very little decisions will be made and a lot of the decisions are made outside the formal work environment.
“You can’t have a discussion or a debate and expect to come away with a solution. The solution comes later.”
Meanwhile, working for a government-run empire led by a member of Dubai’s royal family, the Scot has also become accustomed to business practice in the Arab world. “I think as much as Dubai is very modern and forward thinking, a lot of doing business is very traditional in terms of Arabic culture,” he explains.
“Usually the boss makes the decision and there’s not a lot of consensus. Big decisions are made quite quickly but sometimes small things take a long time to do which is the opposite in the UK.”
While the Emirates boss has had the opportunity to observe the Arabic way of doing business, he has also witnessed at close hand the rapid transformation of Dubai from a sleepy port into an ultra-modern metropolis.
“When I first moved to Dubai the area I lived in was considered to be out in the sticks and you had to drive about 10 kilometres in the desert [from the city] to get there.
“Today the whole 10 kilometres is filled in with apartment blocks, hotels and shopping malls so it’s considered just down the road – it’s incredible.”
McPherson believes the transformation of Emirates Airline is equally impressive.
He says: “The pace of how things have moved forward is incredible and I think the company has got it right in our focus areas.
“Working for a company with so many nationalities that all bring something to the business is fascinating compared to working with UK-based airlines.”
And so to his latest mission of establishing Emirates as a major force in the North-East.
The newcomer to Newcastle cites the fact Emirates will be the first long-haul operator at the airport as one of his major challenges.
“The type of aircraft we use doesn’t operate here on a regular basis so there are some occupational hurdles.
“There’s a lot to be done to get Emirates established here but we’re ready for it.
“We have a good team with people coming in from British Airways who can bring international experience and a couple of people who have worked at the airport for a long time so they can bring local knowledge.”
According to the company Emirates is hoping to attract passenger traffic bound for the Far East and Australia but it is also hoping to bring Middle Easterners to Newcastle.
The group has launched a large scale marketing campaign in Dubai and will also bring a group of Arab journalists to the region next month who will visit Newcastle, Northumberland and a local football match.
In the meantime for McPherson there is much work to be done in preparation of the first Dubai-bound flight from Newcastle.
He admits “there are a million and one things to do”.
But will Newcastle be the final move for the veteran airport boss or will his insatiable appetite for travel take him to pastures new to widen the Emirates’ net?
“Who knows with Emirates? For the foreseeable future I’m focused on Newcastle but we never know what’s going to happen in the future.”
The wry smile and the glint in his eye suggests the flying Scotsman is not ready to be grounded just yet.
Page 2: The questionnaire
What car do you drive?
I am just about to take delivery of a new Nissan Qashqai.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
In Dubai there were many great restaurants to visit but I like for their different tastes: Il Rustico, my favourite Italian restaurant in the Rydges hotel, Dubai; Nad al Sheba Club for its famous Friday roast; and Ravi’s in Satwa, for great down-to-earth Asian food.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Only Fools and Horses. I can watch it 100 times and laugh each time.
What’s your favourite book?
Have just finished Empire by Niall Ferguson, a great factual book about how Britain made the modern world.
What’s your favourite film?
Any James Bond film.
What was the last album you bought?
Michael Learns To Rock – LIVE.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
I would have loved to be a professional golfer, but neither have the skills to get to this level or the commitment that is required.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you'd teach it to say?
Always look on the bright side of life!
What’s your greatest fear?
My children are getting to a stage where they are going into the big wide world and my fear is for them and how they will cope on their own.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Get yourself a good mentor and learn from them.
And the worst?
The only way to get ahead is put in the hours – not true.
What’s your poison?
A good Scotch whisky and I need a cup of tea to start the day.
What newspaper do you read (apart from The Journal)?
I enjoy reading through the Sunday Times, which we got in Dubai on a Monday.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£32 as a airline check-in agent at Glasgow Airport back in 1978.
How do you keep fit?
Once settled in the North-East I intend to do a lot more cycling.
What's your most irritating habit?
My wife says I watch too much football on the TV, even in Dubai. Now I am back I have just ordered Sky Sports but she doesn’t know yet.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Before we left Dubai, I bought my wife a beautiful diamond necklace and set of diamond earrings.
With which historical or fictional character do you most identify?
Davie Cooper, a Scottish footballer who had a natural talent for the game but was down to earth and a genuine nice guy.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Elle MacPherson, because she is my namesake, Sean Connery, my James Bond hero, David Murray, the chairman of Glasgow Rangers football club, and Princess Diana, just a great all round person.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a fair and business like person who is trustworthy and reliable.