Of the 23 TV and radio interviews Blair Nimmo faced on 2 October it was BBC Breakfast’s Louise Minchin that gave him the roughest ride.
Piers Morgan was a breeze compared with Minchin, who harangued the man in charge of Britain’s biggest airline insolvency about the fate of Monarch’s 2,100 staff.
“Now I quite like Louise Minchin, I didn’t think she was the nippy type,” Nimmo tells City A.M.. “We didn’t have the option for staff to be first to know about the insolvency.”
Monarch collapsed into administration that morning, stranding 110,000 customers and disappointing 14,000 more as they turned up to airports.
The day drew a line under a tumultuous month for Nimmo, who moved from being Monarch’s last hope to its executioner.
Plan A versus Plan B
KPMG was brought in on 1 September as a back up; to run “Plan B” in the event Monarch’s “Plan A” fell apart.
Plan A was a secret strategy shift that involved selling the airline’s business – the slots, the routes and licence – to another carrier.
“The view was: to make a viable business, Monarch needed to move to long-haul,” Nimmo explains.
They had 35 new aircraft on order from Boeing for delivery in spring 2018. These aircraft would be suitable for that type of business.
Discussions with the Plan A bidder – Nimmo remains bound by confidentiality on a name – were “well advanced”.
But there were two key operational hurdles to navigate if Plan A was to work. Renewing the carrier’s regulatory licences, the first of which ran out on 30 September; and getting the loss-making airline to 2018 without another cash injection from its owners.
“At that point [Monarch] was saying: ‘We are hopeful that this party will pursue, but we are concerned that we have got all our eggs in that party’s basket.’”
KPMG’s Plan B consisted of an accelerated sale process that would run in parallel to Plan A. Nimmo’s biggest worry was keeping both processes secret.
“While we were getting everybody to sign NDAs [non-disclosure agreements], if you push out into a relatively small market then the chances of a leak increase and could trigger concerns – which is exactly what you were trying to avoid.”
KPMG approached around 30 parties giving them a short timeframe – until 5pm on 15 September – to submit an offer.
“The process was very much: ‘We’re going to make available to you the business of Monarch airlines.’ There was no price indication given. You can have the solvent business or part of it,” he says.
So basically, make an offer to us for the bits you would like.
Countdown to the end – Monarch's final month
There was no specific date when Plan A slid away. But as the Plan B deadline approached, talks with Greybull’s frontrunner ground to a halt.
KPMG, meanwhile, received interest from a number of parties on 15 September. But only one bidder wanted to buy Monarch as a going concern.
Nimmo says: “From that point in time to the demise of the company, we worked with that offer to try and firm up, clarify and conclude the deal.”
In the meantime, the CAA had been kept abreast of the situation. With only one option on the table, authorities dusted down well-rehearsed plans to prepare for the failure of a major UK airline.
“They had gone through the dry run a year before and the CAA was keen to understand how the sales process was going.”
Alongside the CAA, KPMG started contingency planning for an administration.
During its final frantic week, Monarch was holding multiple board meetings each day as KPMG pushed hard to get a sale over the line.
And with the 30 September operating licence deadline fast approaching, Monarch was granted a one-day licence extension by the CAA before planes would be grounded.
As Saturday wore on a realisation set in that “all solvent processes had been exhausted”.
You can only guess that acquiring the business as it currently stood with all its assets and liabilities was ultimately something the bidder didn’t want to do.
Nimmo had promised his wife to attend a friend’s birthday celebration in St Andrews on the Saturday night. It was a promise he kept, of sorts at least. Much to his wife’s chagrin, he spent the majority of the dinner stood outside the restaurant, pinned to his mobile on a conference call as the axe was finally swung. One by one, the directors gloomily conceded there was no hope and resolved to put Monarch into administration.
From Saturday night, KPMG and the CAA sprung into action and readied themselves for the airline’s failure and the fall-out on passengers and staff.
The CAA commandeered unused Qatar Airways aircraft, landing them at Luton Airport. Meanwhile, KPMG booked up rooms and conference suites at Luton’s Hampton by Hilton and Holiday Inn hotels on a no-name basis for fear of journalists being tipped off.
Nimmo hot-footed it to London on Sunday morning. He first went to the London offices of lawyers Freshfields to sign the insolvency documentation; these would be presented to a judge hours later.
Final details were hammered out at meetings in the Luton hotels and Monarch’s offices through the afternoon and evening. The administrator-elect got back to his hotel room at 1.30am.
“Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep,” he says.
I was nervous. Even though the CAA was in charge of the repatriation plan, there was no doubt that had it been a mess, had it been a shambles, had people been stranded all over the globe, it would have reflected badly on KPMG.
Monarch and KPMG staff reconvened just after 3am, waiting for the carrier’s final sortie, a delayed flight from Cyprus’ Larnaca airport to touch down.
The plane landed shortly after 3am and at 4am Nimmo, along with KPMG colleagues Jim Tucker and Mike Pink, formally took control of the airline.
Nimmo regrets the fact staff were not notified of the company failure first. Most Monarch employees discovered news of the administration on their way to work on Monday morning.
But KPMG could not take an appointment with one aircraft still in the air, as the administration would have rendered the carrier’s aviation licence and insurance obsolete.
Nimmo concedes KPMG underestimated the focus of the world’s media would be on the fate of the 2,100 Monarch workers.
“The trickiest part of the job was when I started to do the media stuff from 6am. The focus in my head was customer, customer, customer.
“It then became apparent that while it was pretty sore on the customers, it was a lot sorer on the employees. This was their job, their livelihood. They did have a genuine feeling and warmth for this company.
Normally in insolvency you go in the morning, you have a factory meeting to talk to the employees first. That is always the way. Because of the logistics of this, we couldn’t do it. We had to tell the customers, long before we could speak to the employees.
Throughout the rest of the day, in hotels and conference rooms up and down the country, KPMG set about the grisly task of telling staff about their employment future.
“I think the staff knew the sector was having a very tough time.
“There was a lot of tears but there was very little anger… That being said, on the day that you lose your job, it is not a nice place to be.”
By Monday evening, 1,800 of Monarch’s staff had been told they were out of a job.
In the days that followed Monarch chief executive Andrew Swaffield was chastised for allegedly setting up a new consultancy hours after the airline failed.
“It was a difficult time for Andrew,” says Nimmo. “My own take on him is that he is a really nice man. He genuinely had the best interests of his staff and the customers high up on his priority list. He was very straightforward to deal with throughout.”
He also defends Greybull, the controversial turnaround house to be the subject of significant criticism – in particular that it profited from Monarch’s failure.
“An insolvency involves losing money and losing jobs. So someone is going to come in for some flack,” Nimmo says.
The factors that got it into such a poor state were terrorist activities on some key routes and exchange rate movements. Greybull had no control over either of these issues.
KPMG’s latest creditor update on 24 November revealed it was “likely” Greybull would take a loss. This was despite the administrators winning a Court of Appeal ruling entitling them to sell take-off and landing slots worth around £60m.
“The fact of the matter is, Greybull bought the company when it was seriously distressed. They did not own the company and drive it into a distressed state. It was there when they got it. People have to remember that."
He adds: “If it was a viable business, why didn’t someone else come and pick it up?”
Who is Blair Nimmo?