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Keith Williams: BA’s Mr Nice

There is something of a lockdown on people close to the board of British Airways speaking openly about… well, anything that goes on inside the national carrier at the moment. Fair enough while its merger with Iberia is rubber-stamped. But it is a shame that neither BA’s chief financial officer nor the three finance heads of other companies who worked with him could find the time to tell Financial Director about his skills in discharging what is probably the UK’s toughest finance job.

Williams won the 2010 Accountancy Age award for Blue Chip FD of the Year last November, against stiff competition: judges said he was “a phenomenal FD” who has maintained “a very, very strong finance function” for the business through the last couple of torrid years. And he sealed the merger with Iberia late last year by forging a plan to cut BA’s pension scheme deficit by £3.7bn, avoiding the closure of its two final-salary schemes: Iberia had made this a deal-breaker.

But what Williams, who becomes the merged entity’s CEO, is most lauded for behind the scenes is his skill in nurturing and leveraging the relationships that keep the business running – from his own finance team and the board, shareholders who had seven years without a dividend, its pension scheme trustees and the rest of BA’s staff to his deal-mates at Iberia. Headhunters and those advising FDs who know the CFO say they are struck by the genuine interest he takes in people around him. One of the stories Financial Director hears time and again is that, when someone at BA wants to talk to CEO Willie Walsh, they go through Williams first.

“Walsh is no finance person and is very emotionally driven. Keith is very driven, level-headed and straightforward,” one headhunter says. “They make a dynamic team. They work perfectly.” For his own part, while declining an in interview with Financial Director about his awards win, Williams has spoken recently – if in rather carefully chosen terms – about his relationship with Walsh. “I know what he’s thinking and I know he knows what I’m thinking: we’ve had a pretty close relationship,” he told Bloomberg.

A well-loved FD

One analyst says that Williams’s reputation as an unusually amiable and engaging FD who engenders trust reaches far across BA’s workforce – handy when Walsh is so unpopular. He recalls chatting with a steward on a BA flight about having just met the FD. “They said, ‘I’ve heard from my colleagues that he is meant to be a nice guy’,” the analyst recalls. “He is well loved – he always makes time for staff and external people.” The fact that BA’s staff magazine carried an in-depth interview with the CFO, not the CEO, in its launch issue last June underlines his internal profile.

Williams’s amiable approach has smoothed the way with BA’s investors who sat out the recession without any dividends. “He’s done an incredible job of reassuring shareholders who were being told to sell BA shares,” one Accountancy Age Awards judge said. “These shareholders could see from the story Keith was explaining that the business was going to come back stronger.” And he will be putting his powers of persuasion to use as the merged entity embarks on a hunt for acquisitions in 2011.

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