A tribute to Sir Michael Marshall, founder of the Marshall Company

Sir Michael Marshall, who was the grandson of David Marshall, the founder of the eponymous British company, was a legend in the country’s aerospace industry and arguably one of its most influential figures in a generation. But, perhaps most importantly, he was widely regarded as a kind and humble man who was fiercely loyal to the company’s employees. He set a standard many businesses, not just in aviation, would do well to emulate. For that reason, his story is worth revisiting.

Sir Michael died in summer 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic meant a celebration of his life, organized by the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers to pay tribute to this extraordinary man, was finally able to take place in February. I was privileged to be there among much more distinguished guests, including Sir Michael’s widow, Lady Sybil, Marshall Company board members, and others connected to the Cambridge-based firm, who gathered at London’s Royal Aeronautical Society. Before dinner a lecture about Sir Michael’s life was delivered by Air Marshal Richard Knighton, the UK’s Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, who has long been connected to one of Britain’s most famous university cities.

The story of Marshall of Cambridge began in 1909 when David Marshall founded a chauffeur-drive business. He had been working as part of the kitchen staff at one of the University’s colleges before establishing a small garage, having spotted an opportunity in the nascent automotive industry. The company entered the aviation sector in 1929, after Arthur Marshall, David’s son, gained his pilot’s wings in 1927 and joined the family firm, following his studies for an engineering degree. On a whim, Arthur had acquired a Gipsy Moth airplane and it was spotted parked in a field by pioneering aviator Sir Alan Cobham, who just happened to be flying past overhead.

Cobham landed and went to find out who owned the Moth, encouraging the family to open an aerodrome near their home. By 1936, Marshall had acquired a large site, which today remains Cambridge Airport. During the Second World War, Marshall taught more than 20,000 RAF pilots to fly at Cambridge and other sites, as well as maintaining thousands of military aircraft. This continued post-war, and the company became a sub-contractor for all British-made aircraft when the industry was nationalized. Most significantly, it has been associated with the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules since 1966, famously creating air-to-air refueling modifications that enabled the transporter to fly long distances during the Falklands Conflict in 1982.

Tellingly, the company motto is Felix Qui Laborat, or ‘happy is he who works’, and Marshall remains a leading supporter of apprenticeship schemes, having trained engineers since 1921. Some employees go on to notch up 40 or even 50-year careers there. Current chairman Alex Dorrian told me that he’d even signed a certificate for one man who had notched up 60 years at the business in various guises, marking the occasion before finally hanging up his overalls.

What can engender such longevity in employment? Those at February’s tribute dinner who knew Sir Michael described his passion for aviation and aerospace. Born in 1932, he was commissioned as an RAF pilot during National Service between 1950 and 1952 and remained a keen private pilot throughout his life. He also spent much time and energy supporting youth initiatives. Marshall has long run a highly competitive apprenticeship scheme, regarded as one of the finest. It also has had a strong ethos of training, staff retention and of corporate social responsibility long before the current vogue for ESG investing (Environment, Social value and Governance).

In one citation for an award he received, Sir Michael was referred to as “a dynamic force for good” in both the business and social life of the city of Cambridge. The warmth expressed for him at the tribute dinner was much in evidence. He continues to be missed.

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