Better late than never for the man with no plan

Belfast City Airport chief executive Brian Ambrose retires in June after 45 years in aviation. He talks to business editor Gary McDonald about the highs - and lows - of a remarkable career

Brian Ambrose
Brian Ambrose

BRIAN Ambrose is taking it just a little bit easier right now. He's officially winding down. At last. And come the end of June, a lifetime working in the Belfast Harbour Estate will come to a monumentally satisfactory end.

“It's better late than never. I had actually planned to retire at the end of 2019, when I hit 60. But it just didn't work out that way,” he says.

By “not working out”, Brian means that there was a whiff that his business's largest customer - in this case Flybe - was heading for a heap of trouble and might not see out the next quarter.

And typical of this man of such strong faith and integrity, and who throughout his high-profile career has remained totally apolitical (“my relations with Sinn Fein are as strong as with the DUP”), he wanted to hang around to see what wise counsel he could bring.

But while he was ultimately unable to do anything to stave off the inevitable administration of the regional airline, his added time ensured the business he has presided over so efficaciously for decades will emerge from recent turbulence (on multiple fronts) as a stronger and financially sound entity.

Brian has served as chief executive of George Best Belfast City Airport since 2004, though has been in the wider aviation sector since, as a 16-year-old, he completed an apprenticeship as an aircraft fitter at Shorts.

He spent more than 20 years with Shorts (later Bombardier), holding senior positions in engineering and business development, before being enticed across the runway to City Airport as director of operations and subsequently being appointed CEO.

“I never had a plan for anything in my career,” said Brian, who grew up in Portavogie, where he lives to this day (he and wife Hilary have four children at six grandchildren).

“I sort of messed up at school and left at 16. I had a penchant for technical drawing so applied for a draftsman role at Shorts. In my naïvety I was told I had to serve an apprenticeship first as either fitter or sheet metal worker. Fitter sounded less offensive, so that's what I did, setting off a career path with no plan or purpose.”

His years at Shorts saw him work alongside the likes of (Sir) Roy McNulty, chief executive and chairman of Short Brothers before its takeover by Bombardier, and Rona (now Baroness) Fairhead, who later went on to be chair of the BBC Trust, chief executive of the Financial Times Group and who latterly served as Minister of State at the Department for International Trade.

“After 10 years in aircraft design, Shorts was privatised. It was losing £50 million a year at that time. They tasked a few people, myself included, to go out and learn how to run a modern business. The US and Japan were the places for best practice in manufacturing, so I spent a year back and forward between the two.

“We worked on a Total Quality programme for five years, during which time Shorts went from negative £50m to positive £50m. Then I joined Rona in the sales team, talking to the likes of Boeing and Airbus to bring business into Belfast. That gave me a higher profile.

“Roy McNulty was assigned at that stage to head up the Growth Challenge. He popped into my office one day and simply told me I was coming to work with him to identify how to get the economy going.

“When the City Airport's then-CEO Albert Harrison left, Roy asked me to hold the fort 'for a day or two' to see what was happening. That's how I ended up over here. After several months John Doran took over as chief executive and I was ops director.

“The airport was later sold to Ferrovial. John decided to call it quits and went over to Madrid to inform its chief executive Luis Sánchez. Later that day I got a phone call from Luis informing me: 'Congratulations Brian, you're our new chief executive'.

“So the upshot of all this is that the only interview I've done in 45 years was for a Shorts apprenticeship!”

From the earliest days as a converted hangar, Belfast City is now a modern purpose-build facility which can easily facilitate four million passengers a year (it was sitting at 2.5m at the end of 2019).

In a wide-ranging interview, in which Brian talks at length of the people he's met (he has the airline industry running through his veins), he inevitably touches on some lows. Like 9/11, after which people were predicting the air travel industry would never recover. The arrival (and subsequent acrimonious departure) of Ryanair before its return just a few weeks ago. There was the short-term ash cloud grounding. Flybe's collapse came at a time when it made up 80 per cent of the airport's business. And now there's Covid.

But there are many more highs, he insists - notably the resilience the business has had to bounce back every time.

“Like any business, it doesn't really matter if you are a sweetie shop or an airport. If you've a good product, there'll be demand for it. And there is demand for ours,” he says

“In 2019, we operated 16 routes. When Flybe collapsed we were down to a single route. Yet this summer we'll have 24 routes in total. And big carriers like BA and Aer Lingus, KLM and Ryanair.

“On the day Flybe fell, I said I was confident we would rebuild the entire network. That wasn't just saying something stupid for the media. I knew there was a strong demand for our offer, so when we went to airlines to talk about backfilling Flybe, it wasn't a hard sell.

“Ironically, the collapse of Flybe has taken us from an airport heavily reliant on a single airline to one with a diverse suite of carriers, serving 24 destinations.

“And as the economy recovers, it'll be easy for us to increase capacity, taking a single-daily to double daily, then maybe three or four times a day. It's not complicated.”

But Brian lists his biggest achievement as building an outstanding workplace culture at the airport, where he has invested so much of his own time in the five directors “meaning I can easily step aside and it won't make any difference to the running of this place”.

His mantra has always been "Faith, Family and Friends", and that will continue into retirement as he leaves behind a profitable business, one with huge growth potential.

But, like his career, he's no plan for what he'll do after June 30. You sense, though, we'll be hearing more from Brian Ambrose.