Forget about Macron vs. Merkel or Les Bleus vs. Die Mannschaft. Franco-German rivalry goes back a long, long way, well before European aircraft manufacturer Airbus was born.
France and Germany each has an 11.1% stake in Airbus, a giant aerospace company created in 1970 as a European industrial initiative to compete with Boeing. On the surface cooperation between the two appears cordial. In reality it is anything but that.
Whenever there’s an industrial dispute or production issues, old enmities come into play. In 2006 when the A380 production delays resulted in major financial woes, the French (under Noel Forgeard) blamed the Germans allegedly over problems at its Hamburg plant. Rubbish, replied Tom Enders, his German co-CEO.
Enders was appointed sole CEO in 2007 when Airbus finally saw its folly and did away with the double CEO and double Chairmen structures.
In a release on Dec. 15, 2017 Airbus announced it had made drastic changes to its top management lineup. Read it here. Herr Enders, 59, will not seek his third mandate as CEO when his term expires in April 2019. Airbus has not identified the person who will replace Enders.
Airbus also stated that its chief operating officer (COO) Fabrice Brégier is to leave the company end-February 2018. The Frenchman will likely make his final international public appearance at the Singapore Airshow on Feb. 6 before he bows out, reportedly with a golden handshake worth two years’ salary.
Guillaume Faury, 49, the current CEO of Airbus Helicopters, will take over Brégier’s position as President of Airbus Commercial Aircraft. The 56-year-old Brégier told the firm’s Board of Directors he had no intention to take part in the selection process for a new CEO – he knew he was not in the running for it. “The time has come for me to seek new opportunities,” he said in a statement.
The differences between Brégier and Enders are quite stark; the Frenchman is suave, subtle, the epitome of amour propre while his German colleague is precise, disciplined and obdurate. These aren’t stereotypes of the two nationalities, just the personalities of the two as observed by people who have followed them over the past decade.
Those who know Brégier well say he is very intelligent, demanding and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The German media clearly dislikes him as evident in this article that portrays him as cunning and ungentlemanly.
Enders and Brégier have been tussling for several years, each trying to claim credit for Airbus’ sterling performance in aircraft sales. That success, ironically, was largely the work of John Leahy, a New Yorker who was instrumental in Airbus nudging ahead of arch-rival Boeing.
Whilst acknowledging that Airbus needs “fresh minds”, Enders was also quick to stress “many of the achievements this company can be proud of over the past decade were led by Fabrice and me, together.” We italicise the word “together” because Enders wanted to show the world Brégier could not have done it himself.
It would be interesting if Leahy does write a no-holds barred autobiography when he retires in early 2018, about his (very successful) days in Airbus and how he navigated and weaved through the French and German minefield.
Granted, Enders and Brégier steadied the ship, together, but it was Leahy who made Airbus what it is today. An American was the face of Airbus. Everyone knew that.
In any case, Leahy’s departure will leave a gaping hole, unlikely to be plugged anytime soon (if at all) by French-born Eric Schulz, head of Rolls-Royce civil engines unit. Schulz is to start work as Airbus chief salesman in January 2018.
There’s also the pressing issue of the conglomerate facing a slew of probes in France, Germany and the UK over alleged bribery and the use of middlemen to help win orders.
Deutschland über alles
It would appear the Board of Directors – comprising 3 French, 4 Germans, 2 British, 1 American, 1 Portuguese and 1 Spaniard – is keen to avoid a ban on Airbus taking part in public contracts and is hoping to quickly resolve the corruption allegations.
Anyone who has shook hands with Enders knows how firm his grip is, and how physically dominating the former paratrooper can be. Although German in mannerism and outlook, he is influenced by American business ethics, likely from his years as a PhD student at UCLA.
The risk to Airbus, while all these personality and cultural clashes are being played out, is that it loses its focus and naturally, its grip on global aircraft sales. At this year’s Paris and Dubai airshows Boeing obliterated Airbus with a slew of big-ticket orders.
Is the Enders-Brégier schism an accurate reflection of the relationship between the French and the Germans? Can Gallic grace, elegance and panache find a balance with a Teutonic neighbour that always seems to be too rigid, too precise, too technocratic and worse, too good at football?
We shall soon find out…